BROOKSVILLE — It’s not in the immediate future, but there will come a day when the Hernando Christian girls basketball team takes the court without one of the Jackson sisters.
“That’s probably when I’ll retire,” coach Mike Drummond said.
For the past four seasons Drummond has had the comfort of at least two Jackson sisters in the starting lineup. The familial feeling has reached a new height this winter with three-fifths of the first unit named Jackson.
Likely no great coincidence, the Lions are off to a program-best 16-1 start led by sisters Milly (senior), Abby (junior) and Esther (sophomore). When the older two missed last year’s district semifinals with injuries, it resulted in a difficult 30-29 defeat to rival Ocala St. John Lutheran.
But HCA has beaten the Saints twice this year to lock up the top seed in its half of Class 2A, District 4.
When Drummond, the school’s athletic director since 2005, started coaching the girls squad in 2010, wins weren’t so free flowing.
“Girls basketball was kind of an afterthought,” he said.
The team made the playoffs for the first time in 2008, but the ensuing economic downturn shrunk attendance at the tuition-based school and athletics suffered. Drummond’s first three Lions squads hit right on three wins apiece.
But Year 3 was also the first year Mary Jackson played.
“Mary led the way,” said Milly, who has assumed leadership on the Lions and started since eight grade.
Mary was a point guard, and though she got the hoops turnaround started, the biggest assist goes to oldest brother Jake — one of her nine siblings.
The Jacksons are home schooled. Drummond’s initial meeting with dad Keith Jackson might have been the most important meeting in HCA athletics history.
Keith wanted a quality sports program, but preferred a smaller environment for Jake and HCA fit that perfectly. Though that year (2010) was the last season of 11-man football for HCA.
Then came the Jackson sisters: six total, although Sarah, the oldest of the 10 “didn’t get the sports gene,” according to dad. Lydia, an eighth-grader, is currently on the HCA middle-school team.
“When Mary came on as a freshman, we started completely over,” Drummond said. “So to get that first district championship Mary’s senior year (2015-16), it was an emotional night. She and I had talked about it from the time she was a freshman: ‘You’re going to be the girl to lead us to our first district championship.’ She helped to change the culture around the school.”
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On her senior night, Drummond decided it was time to pull off a first. “We had the Jackson Four,” he said.
Esther was a seventh-grader then and had only scored two varsity points but got called up; Abby was a bench player (21 points total) but for this game, Drummond put all four on the floor at once.
“I couldn’t tell ’em apart. I couldn’t tell who I was passing the ball to,” said Milly.
It was the only season Mary and Abby played together, probably a good thing for confusion’s sake.
“I’m exactly like her,” Abby said. “We play the same way. Even our voices get mixed up. She wore No. 11 (the number Abby would assume), she was always one of my role models. When she was point guard, from sixth grade that’s what I wanted to be.”
Esther just remembers it being a nerve-wracking night because she was so inexperienced. In fact Milly (the cool wise-cracker) and Abby (more of a stealth humorist) still give her flak, but she wasn’t called up to varsity full-time until she was a freshman.
“But what a ninth grade she had. She set all of our scoring records,” Drummond said.
Specifically, Esther drained nine 3-pointers in last year’s district tournament opener, scoring 37, both school marks.
Her propensity for the outside shot makes it relatively easy to distinguish the three.
“She passes, she shoots and I get the rebound,” Milly said regarding to, in order, Abby, Esther and herself. Cassidy Coffman is second on the squad in rebounds to Milly, who’s not such a bad shooter herself, leading the team with 14.7 points per game, a shade better than Esther.
Also Esther is the only one of the sisters not wearing a headband. The joke, according to Milly, is Esther doesn’t play any defense (hence the lack of sweat).
There are eight teams in the district, but for travel reasons coaches agreed this year to split them into groups of four for the tournament. HCA will host its half, almost certainly meaning an eventual third game against St. John Lutheran for a spot in the district finals. Bayshore Christian (17-1 entering the week) leads the south and looms as the likely finals opponent.
The squads have met 11 times in the past four seasons, including twice in the playoffs.
This time Drummond looks forward to being at full strength. Late last season Abby tore her ACL, and Milly tried to push through an ankle injury in the district semis but exited early.
Abby returned in the fourth game this season. Sophomore Jada Norton filled in for her at point guard and has been playing more minutes of late while senior Lauren Cantrell, the third leading scorer, has been hurt. Robin Jones, a senior transfer from Indiana, has provided a spark as the first off the bench as well.
But HCA’s game revolves around the Jacksons.
It will be hard to replace Milly ... but Lydia will be a freshman.
“Everyone just kind of knows us as the Jacksons here,” Abby said. “The whole HCA experience, from not knowing what a school is, to now … and being welcomed, to eat lunch with them, hang out with them, it’s just been great.”