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GIRLS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: AKITA HEATLY, BOCA CIEGA // Heatly deserved this honor, again

Perhaps, it is fitting that Akita Heatly's career ends with another similar talent emerging on the girls basketball scene to take her place.

While the senior Boca Ciega guard exceled this year and helped lead the Pirates to consecutive Class 5A state championships, it was hard to overlook the darting, dashing style of Academy of the Holy Names sophomore sensation Sherisha Hills, who helped lead the Jaguars to a Class 3A state title.

In so many respects, their abilities were so alike and their talents so widely praised which made the choice for the Times All-Suncoast Player of the Year honor close.

Yet, it was Heatly's uncanny ability to assume control and take over a game when her team needed her the most that enabled the Pirates to win another state title and become the first Pinellas County public high school girls team to win back-to-back championships.

"She understands the game so well and reacts to any situation when she has to," Boca Ciega coach Harry Elifson said. "The greatest gift Akita has and gave to everyone is her ability to coach. She made everyone around her so much better."

For that gift and the leadership she displayed while guiding the Pirates, Heatly was chosen as the Times All-Suncoast Player of the Year for a second straight season.

"She does so many things out on the court that make her special," said Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt, who played against Hills and Heatly several times. "She could turn it on whenever the time was right."

There were plenty of times when the University of Florida-bound Heatly didn't turn it on as she averaged 13 points per game, four points lower than last year's total and 10 points lower than Hills' 23.6 ppg.

Yet, when the games really counted, Heatly was there to clear the path for the Pirates (33-1). She helped lead them to a Hooters Holiday championship, including a mammoth last-second victory over Class 6A Miami Edison. She also helped post victories over several other ranked teams during the season as Bogie remained No. 1 from the opening week of the season until the end and attained a No. 19 ranking in the USA Today poll.

Still, the sheer individual numbers by themselves don't measure Heatly's remarkable achievements and ability on the court.

"Don't get me wrong, Sherisha Hills is a great player, the next Akita," said Elifson, whose team defeated Holy Names in the finals of the Hooters Holiday Tournament behind a last-quarter rally led by Heatly. "But you just can't always talk in numbers. She made sacrifices to help her teammates. That's a sign of a gifted ballplayer."

Hills exceled as well for the Jaguars with her long-range shooting and quick moves to the basket in carrying Holy Names to the state championship. Unlike Heatly, Hills has two more chances to help Academy of Holy Names repeat.

"You can't deny the talent of Sherisha," Elifson said. "She is already a special player and is going to get better and better. Players like Sherisha and Akita are rare and don't come along too often."

While it was hard to pick the player of the year it was equally hard for the coach of the year, which was given to Craig Keeler of Academy. Other team picks include senior Tasha Smith of Plant, who averaged an area-high 29 points per game at center; sophomore forward Jackie Pugh (21 ppg.) of Pasco was the North Suncoast Player of the Year; East Lake's senior guard Jessica Brazzell (21 ppg.) helped guide East Lake into a regional final and Brandon's junior Melissa Brown guided it to a No. 2 ranking while averaging 19 ppg. before going down with an injury late in the season.

The All-Suncoast girls basketball team is selected by the Times in consultation with area coaches. Players from Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties are eligible.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Akita Heatly, senior guard, Boca Ciega (13 points per game)

COACH OF THE YEAR

Craig Keeler, Academy Holy Names

FIRST TEAM

Name School Yr Pos.

Sherisha Hills Academy So. G

Jess Brazzell East Lake Sr. G

Tasha Smith Plant Sr. F/C

Melissa Brown Brandon Jr. G

Jackie Pugh Pasco So. F

SECOND TEAM

Name School Yr Pos.

Shinikki Whiting Clearwater Fr. G

Angie Williams Boca Ciega Sr. C

Crystal Worlds Boca Ciega Sr. F

Debbie Wolfe Brandon Sr. F

Saioa Torrealday Academy Sr. G

Holly Holland East Lake Sr. G

HONORABLE MENTION

Academy _ Kyleen Charlton, Lauren Cliggitt. Armwood _ Jessica Augello. Bayshore Chr. _ Anika Blocker, Antoinette Cole. Brandon _ Deanna Graham. Clearwater _ Alicia Evans, Molly Worrall. Dunedin _ Tina Gillems. Hernando _ Sara Bartos. Jefferson _ Tinika Carrington. Keswick Chr. _ Nicole Hoffmann, Natalie Royer. Lecanto _ Nikki Nunn, Tamika Collins. Northside Chr. _ Alison Mathews, Brianne Harrington. Pasco _ Shantelle Coleman. Robinson _ Kysha Herald, Niki Pierce. St. Petersburg _ Latonia Walker. TB Tech _ Segeeta Bland. Tampa Cath. _ Walkeria Rodriguez.

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