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Inclusion into elite women’s basketball ranks tends to elude Tampa Bay players

Budget cuts and rising costs have taken a toll on the girls game, with locals rarely making the cut at major Division I-A programs. This year’s Final Four in Tampa will have no local flavor.
Clearwater High's Dominique Redding is the last area player to compete in a Women's Final Four. (Courtesy of the University of Tennessee)
Published Mar. 29
Updated Mar. 29

It is a lasting image in women’s basketball history, especially around these parts.

Thirty seconds to play, a 13-point lead secured. Clearwater’s own Dominique Redding dribbles, dribbles, dribbles … then heaves the ball high enough to kiss the scoreboard as the buzzer sounds. The University of Tennessee, one of the NCAA’s storied programs, beats Rutgers for the national title.

It has been 12 years since Redding made history for her hometown, a feat that may remain unmatched: She is the only Tampa Bay woman crowned a Division I-A national basketball champion.

“It was a feeling unlike any other,” Redding said of winning it all. “My only regret is not being able to do it the following year when the Final Four first came to Tampa.” Tennessee won its eighth title in 2008 after Redding graduated.

The only other local to make a women’s Final Four is Lakewood High graduate Necole Tunsil, who started for Iowa when the Hawkeyes advanced in 1993. Two locals in the 37-year history of the tournament.

No natives will suit up at Amalie Arena when the Final Four returns to Tampa this week.

“The talent level for marquee players in the Tampa Bay area and the state has been on the decline for years,” said former Boca Ciega High coach Harry Elifson, who went on to become an assistant at several colleges, including USF, before starting a national recruiting service. “It is as bad as it has ever been, and I don’t know when it will change.”

• • •

Tampa is hosting the women’s Final Four for the third time in 11 years. Those frequent stops have seemingly done little to generate more interest in the sport here among girls.

In 2017-18, almost 10,000 more boys played high school basketball than girls in Florida, according to the National Federation of High School Sports. And that’s with roughly the same number of schools fielding both teams.

That gap was considerably narrower 10 years ago when about 3,000 more boys played. Those lower numbers make it hard for public schools to fill rosters, endangering the sport.

Two years ago, seven of the 16 public high schools in Pinellas County did not field junior varsity teams. This year, Brandon High, a school with nearly 2,000 students, had to forfeit its varsity season after injuries depleted an already thin roster.

The lack of interest affects the sport on a grassroots level. Newcomers have fewer local venues to work on the most rudimentary parts of the game.

“The biggest reason why you are not seeing more players from the area make the Final Four is because they are not starting young enough,” said Elifson, who won consecutive state titles with Boca Ciega in the mid 1990s. “The days of taking up the sport in high school and transforming into an elite player are long gone. If you are even starting to play in seventh or eighth grade, it is already too late. Those playing for premier college programs have been doing so since they were in elementary school.”

For years, the Police Athletic League in St. Petersburg offered leagues and clinics for children at different age levels. That changed this year when the organization decided to focus on children’s wellness through after-school care and summer camps.

Some churches and recreational centers have basketball programs. Trouble is, many of the youngest teams are co-ed, leaving girls to compete with boys for playing time.

• • •

Seffner Christian's Peyton Walker goes up for a shot against Miami Country Day's Channise Lewis during the 2014 state semifinals. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

The lack of a nurturing environment to develop basic skills helped push Rob Walker to start the Tampa Thunder, an Amatuer Athletic Union program that has five teams of girls in various age groups.

Walker, who grew up in New Jersey and lived in Europe, was stunned by the lack of basketball fundamentals when he moved to the area nine years ago.

“My wife (Rachel) is from New Jersey, won three state titles there and ended up playing Division I basketball,” Walker said. “The first time she entered a gymnasium in fifth grade, she was not even allowed to touch a basketball until she learned the proper footwork for making a layup. What I saw here was alarming. The girls were just going out to play rather than learning how to play.”

Cultivating talent in middle school can be just as challenging. Because of budget restraints, public middle schools have limited basketball schedules, which range from six games in Hillsborough County to 10 in Pinellas for each boys and girls season.

Walker’s oldest daughter, Peyton, spent four years in Belgium before the family moved to Lithia. Her middle school experience was frustrating. Officials and opposing coaches often encouraged her to play down to the level of her competition.

“They kept saying she would embarrass the other girls,” Rob Walker said. “You’re not going to get better doing that. You’re going to regress. We had to get her out of there.”

Peyton transferred to Seffner Christian, a powerhouse private school program that she helped lead to back-to-back state championship appearances in 2014-15. She went on to play college basketball at Wofford and Warner.

Another issue for middle schools is having just one team at all grade levels per gender.

Northeast High coach Will White, who has 375 career wins, said sixth-graders typically are cut in favor of more experienced seventh- and eighth-graders.

“Rather than come out again the following year, those girls move on to something else, creating even less of a pool of players,” White said.

• • •

Tennessee's LaToya Davis hugs Dominique Redding while Tye'sha Fluker, right, screams as their team beats LSU in the NCAA national semifinals in 2004. (John Doman | St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Getting to the Final Four is difficult, even with extensive playing experience. Connecticut and Tennessee have combined to win more than half the national titles (19) in the tournament’s history.

“Because those two programs are so dominant and get there almost every year, that cuts the field in half,” Elifson said. “Connecticut and Tennessee are only going after the very best so you have to be exceptional just to make the roster.”

Redding became enthralled with the Vols after watching them play for national championships year after year. She told her mother she was going to Tennessee to play for Pat Summitt, college basketball’s all-time winningest coach who died in 2016 after a five-year bout with Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite being a consensus All-American, Redding never cracked the starting lineup. She was content with that.

“I wanted to be a champion, even if I did not become a starter," Redding said. "I knew going there I had a pretty good shot of getting at least one title in four years.”

To reach that level, Redding started playing “as soon as my feet could hit the floor.” Her introduction to the sport came as a toddler on an outdoor court in Clearwater, where she would put a basketball through a miniature Fisher-Price hoop.

By fifth grade, Redding already was playing organized basketball for a travel team.

“I was fortunate to have opportunities to play at a young age,” she said.

After graduating from college, Redding started coaching an AAU team of sixth-grade girls in Nashville. She said all of them had a deep understanding of the game and were well-versed in fundamentals installed in elementary school.

Some middle schools in Tennessee play up to 25 games.

“The closer you get to Knoxville, the more advanced the girls are in basketball,” Redding said. “They’re all playing because they have that dream of wearing the orange (Tennessee’s prominent school color).”

The Volunteers search nationally for players, and only one player from Florida has made Tennessee’s roster since Redding graduated in 2007.

The lone state product playing for any of four teams seeded No. 1 (Baylor, Louisville, Mississippi State and Notre Dame) in this year’s tournament is the Cardinals’ Jazmine Jones, one of the top 50 players in the country at Tallahassee’s FAMU High.

Even state colleges are looking elsewhere for recruits.

Florida State, which has made the tournament 14 straight seasons, does not have a player from the state on this year’s roster. USF only had one and has not had a local in three years.

Current Lakewood High coach Necole Tunsil plays defense for Iowa in a 1993 game at Minnesota. (Courtesy of the Tunsil family)

Wiregrass Ranch’s Stephanie Brower saw limited playing time at Florida. Another homegrown star, Seffner Christian’s national record-setting 3-point shooter Brylee Bartram, will join the Gators next season and hopes to get them back to the NCAA Tournament, where Florida has advanced just once in the past five years.

Without a lengthy list of state prospects to draw from, college programs in Florida are traveling overseas to find talent. USF’s roster this season included eight international players.

Tunsil said the absence of area players on elite programs cannot be tied just to a lack of resources. To the former standout, now the coach at her alma mater, there also is a lack of toughness.

“None of these girls have any dog in them,” said Tunsil, the last coach in Pinellas County to win a state girls basketball title, in 2011. “You go to other places in the state, like Miami, those girls are hungry. They don’t have $120,000 laying around to go to college. Basketball is their ticket. They ball out. Here, girls have their iPhone 10s, their tablets, maybe their parents have some money stashed away to go to college.

“I just don’t see any fight in them. All I see is a sense of entitlement for playing time.”

Tunsil was born in New York City and started playing when she was 4. Three years later, the family moved to Florida. She became an All-American at Lakewood, leading the Spartans to a state title in 1989. Her success continued at Iowa, where she still ranks among the school’s top 20 in career points, rebounds and assists.

“I came up through the projects in New York,” Tunsil said. “That turned me into the monster that I became on the court. I wanted to go to Iowa, and did everything in my power to get there. I played against older girls, even against boys. And when I got to Iowa, I wasn’t just satisfied to be on the roster. I made sure I became a starter.

“You need that kind of drive to do something at that level.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Tech freshman Janiah Barker, center, is already getting national buzz and could be the next big women's recruit from the area. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)

Tunsil wants to end the drought. She is securing funding through grants and other aid to lease a gymnasium in south St. Petersburg. The plan is to rent the building to local teams and coaches who want to conduct leagues or camps.

“The costs keep rising in the sport,” Tunsil said. “You cannot rent a gym in this area for less than $80 an hour. I’m tired of the rich getting richer and the girls getting nothing. If I can do this and keep the cost down, I think it will go a long way towards keeping girls interested in basketball.”

Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett has added a championship game for middle school boys and girls. He also has encouraged high schools to field junior varsity programs.

In February, Tampa Bay Tech won a girls basketball state title, the first for a Hillsborough County public school in 31 years. The Titans’ top player is Janiah Barker, a 6-foot-3 freshman who is one of the most coveted prospects in the nation for her class.

For stars like Barker, there could be more opportunities to get to the Final Four.

“The game is growing at the college level,” Elifson said. “More teams are televised, creating greater exposure. It’s expanding the number of contending teams. Just look at the tournament this year.”

Redding cannot watch the semifinals that start Friday because of a coaching commitment. She is in charge of an AAU team in Nashville.

For boys, not girls.

But she hasn’t forgotten about her alma mater, even if sometimes it appears Clearwater High has forgotten about her.

Redding compiled an eye-popping 2,648 points during her prep career, a record for her high school and among the tops all-time in the state.

If only the area would recognize her, or invite her back to host clinics for community athletes. She said she has never received a call from Clearwater High since graduating.

“I’m not in my school’s hall of fame but I know plenty of boys from my era who are," Redding said. "That’s a big part of the problem right there. Girls need to know that there have been successful players in the past, that it can be done.

“How can you know if you’re not even recognizing it?”

Women’s Final Four

Amalie Arena, Tampa

April 5, semifinals, 7 and 9:30 TV: ESPN2

April 7, final, 6 TV: ESPN

More info/tickets: Single-session tickets are available through the NCAA’s official site; prices vary. Visit ncaa.com/womens-final-four

More events

• The Tampa Convention Center will host Tourney Town, a free festival with contests, games, autographs and clinics April 5-7. The event includes Beyond the Baseline, which features opportunities for networking and professional development.

• The plaza outside Amalie Arena will host a free party with live music, food and games before the games (4-6:30 on April 5 and 3-5:30 on April 7).

• Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park will have a free celebration of basketball with fireworks and live music from 6-11 p.m. on April 6.

• The Women’s Final Four Bounce is a dribbling parade for children 18 and younger. It starts at 1 p.m. on April 7 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbHomeTeam.

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