After a slow start, Gaither High School's boys basketball team has battled tough and has placed itself in the thick of a district race.
The Cowboys lost five games early in the season, but improved to 10-5 with a 68-64 overtime win over Sickles last Tuesday night.
Gaither coach Dwayne Olinger is pleased with a few things about the team's progress, just a month away from the district tournament:
Only one and two points separated the Cowboys from wins in their early losses, the squad is still undefeated (6-0) in district play, and the team has matured with mostly seniors in the starting lineup.
On the negative side of the ledger, the Cowboys have very little height to be dominant with an inside game. Also, two of the better teams in Hillsborough County, Wharton and Sickles, are in the same district.
"We have been fortunate to get a win against Wharton and three against Sickles, but both teams are tough and they know us better now," Olinger said. "If Wharton (5-1 in district play) beats us in the second game we have scheduled with them, they would be top seed for the tournament, putting us in the bracket to play Sickles a fourth time.
"They have a great team, and four wins against them is probably somewhere in the next-to-impossible area."
No matter what the brackets will be, Olinger says the district tournament is going to be tough. Leto, Alonso and Chamberlain are also in the same district.
To overcome their height disadvantage, the Cowboys rely on quick, good ball-handling guard play.
Junior Chris Bonner is the tallest on the team, at 6 feet 3. Senior Antonio Russell is 6 feet 1. The others are all shorter.
Russell is the point guard and one of the floor leaders. He also leads the team in scoring with 26 points, plus six rebounds per game.
"Because Antonio is so consistent, he gets double guarded, which opens up an opportunity for someone else to step up," Olinger said. "One or more always step up to the task. We go as our guards go."
Bonner is the second highest scorer with 15 points per game, many from the three-point range. He also averages 7.2 rebounds per outing.
Olinger describes first-year senior starter Mike Higgins as a hard-nosed, tough but steady player who is valuable on defense.
The other floor leader is senior point and shooting guard Josh Sims, not quite 5 feet 10. He averages 9.6 points and 3.6 assists per game.
"Because our players have not been blessed with a lot of size, our guards must get our games going," Sims said. "Fortunately, all our guards can defend, shoot, steal and handle the ball. Our two inside men, Mike Higgins and Styles Wilson, are always outsized, but they battle as tough inside as any big player in the county."
Sims thinks the team chemistry and continuing improvement could help the Cowboys keep playing deep into the playoffs.
"We still need to improve a lot," he said. "Coach Olinger says we need to win and improve in each game. We need to work even better together, improve our free-throw shooting and work on the positive mental attitude we need as individuals and as a team."
Gaither High's Chris Bonner, No. 24, plays defense against teammate Josh Sims during practice Thursday. Sims said that "because our players have not been blessed with a lot of size, our guards must get our games going."