After all the quarantines and schedule complications in this pandemic-impacted season, three Tampa Bay area girls basketball teams — Class 7A Plant, Class 5A Clearwater and Class 3A Brooks DeBartolo — remain standing for their respective state semifinals in Lakeland.
“We have so much to be proud of,” Brooks DeBartolo coach Ellie Wilbur said. “It has been a crazy season with the virus, but we worked through it. We kept our focus. But now we have more work to do.”
Confidence is key
Brooks DeBartolo (17-5, No. 3 in 3A by MaxPreps) doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the history of Wednesday’s opponent, Miami Country Day (21-3, No. 1 in 3A), which between 2014 and 2019 won a Florida-record six consecutive state titles.
“This team has played together so long and been through so much together that they are not going to back down to anybody,” Wilbur said. “We feel that if we defend, handle the ball and rebound, then we have a chance, and we believe we can do all of those things (against Miami Country Day).”
Part of that optimism stems from the fact the Phoenix defeated arch-rival Carrollwood Day in the district final and the region semifinals. Just one year ago, CDS won the state title in the same classification so long dominated by Miami Country Day, which lost in last season’s state semis.
“Beating (CDS) in the district final was huge for us because (CDS) had beaten us twice last year, once to knock us out of the playoffs,” Wilbur said. “That was a mental thing we had to take care of. It felt great to get over that hump.”
Other encouraging factors are Brooks DeBartolo’s experience and familiarity. The four seniors — Amarie Godwin, Brionna McClinton, Ayonna Simmons and Triniti Youngblood — have played together all four years for the Phoenix. The other starter, junior Jaela Davis, has been with the group for three years.
“Now all those extra wind sprints and tough practices are paying off and it all makes it that much sweeter,” Wilbur said. “We are enjoying this so much.”
On Wednesday, expect more of the same from the Phoenix, which means even scoring (five players average between eight and 14 points a game) and swarming, relentless, man-to-man defense, which has allowed only two opponents to score more than 60 points in a game.
“If all five players are working together on defense then we are tough to score on,” Wilbur said. “Defense can keep you in the game.”
Clearwater is back
For the first time since 2007, Clearwater (24-4, No. 9 in 5A) is playing in the state final four, an extra-long dry spell for such a proud program. The twist is that many believed this super young group, which features only one senior, was still a year or two away from reaching such heights.
“I said, ‘Why not now?’” coach Darian Dublin said. “I thought we had the talent to do some great things sooner than later. We do have some young players, but they don’t play like they’re young.”
Leading the way are freshman point guard Beckham Hockley (14.6 points a game), sophomores Olivia Fuller (13.3), Ace Sturdivant (9.3), Jade Price and juniors Kyleigh Welsh, Iyanna George and the 6-foot-4 Phillicia Jackson, who is coming back after sitting out a month with an ankle injury.
As for taking on No. 1-ranked American Heritage (23-2) on Thursday, Hockley and Fuller said they can’t wait.
“This is an opportunity to play against some of the best talent in the country (including 6-foot-2 twins Taliyah and Tatyana Wyche, who are committed to the University of Florida),” said Fuller, a 6-foot forward. “We want to play in games like this against players like this. This will make us better.”
Hockley, a self-proclaimed gym rat who often trains before school at 5 a.m., said Thursday will be yet another in a long list of learning moments this year.
“Coming from middle school to high school was such a step up,” Hockley said. “I’ve learned so much and gotten so much better from the beginning the season to now.”
In last Friday’s region final in front of a raucous crowd at Naples Barron Collier, Fuller said she learned a tremendous amount in the matter of a few minutes. With 0.4 seconds remaining and the score tied at 40, she missed two free throws. If she made even one of two, the Tornadoes would have sealed victory.
“I could see that Coach wasn’t mad at me in that situation and that really calmed me down,” Fuller said. “I saw my teammates were still supporting me. All of it helped me going into the overtime.”
Fuller went on to score five of her team’s nine points in OT to grab a 49-45 victory.
“Now we feel we have nothing to lose,” Fuller said. “It’s a great position to be in.”
This year feels different for the Plant girls (24-3, No. 1 in 7A). A lot different. For a lot of reasons.
This time last year, Plant was 30-1 and preparing for the state semifinals, but the fact remained that the final four was all new to the 2020 team. The Panthers hadn’t played in such a game for many years.
They went on to win the semifinal, 73-64 over Palm Beach Lakes. But a day later (Feb. 29) in the state championship game, the Panthers frayed at the seams and were pummeled 63-38 by Miami High.
“We have not forgotten how we felt after that loss on Feb. 29,” coach Carrie Mahon said. “We do not want to feel that way again. So, yes, this week has felt different from last year. This year there is more focus and less celebration. We want to have the celebration after the (championship game).”
Mahon said the senior leaders — guard Nyla Jean (16.3 points a game), forward Kendal Cheesman (17.5, 9.2 rebounds) and Annika Johnson — have made an extra effort to keep everybody on task.
“We are on a mission,” Jean said after a 52-26 region semifinal victory at Sarasota Riverview. “We want that state title. We want to finish our business.”
The first order of business Friday is Oakleaf (23-2, No. 3 in 7A), a bit of an unknown from Clay County. Mahon said the Knights are athletic and well-coached, and she would never, ever take them or anyone else for granted.
“One of the good things that we do have is that the fear of the unknown is not there any more,” Mahon said. “We know what it’s like to go (to Lakeland) and play in that game. That helps.”
Girls basketball state semifinals
At RF Funding Center, Lakeland
Class 7A: Plant vs. Orange Park Oakleaf, 12:30 p.m. Friday
Class 5A: Clearwater vs. American Heritage, 4 p.m. Thursday
Class 3A: Brooks DeBartolo vs. Miami Country Day, 4 p.m. Wednesday