By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes High girls basketball team thinks last season was the exception and not the new rule.
The Gators (16-3) went through a 4-12 season in 2009-10, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003. In steps Laurie Fitzpatrick as the new coach with a pair of new starters and Land O’ Lakes seems set to get back to regionals.
“Our goal is to get past districts,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’d like to get to states and I know the girls believe they can do that.”
Fitzpatrick and the Gators are on track to enter the Class 4A-District 8 tournament as the No. 1 seed. Their toughest challengers for the district championship will likely come from Wiregrass Ranch High (13-9) and Citrus High (15-3). Land O’ Lakes have already beaten both the Bulls and Hurricanes this year.
The Gators appear to be hitting their stride at the right time, winning their last 11 straight games. However it has not been easy for the central Pasco County squad.
Fitzpatrick and her new team not only needed to get used to each other, Land O’ Lakes also has two new players who transferred from other schools — Shanel Sweet from Gaither High and Simone Brown from Wesley Chapel High.
“At first it was tough getting to know a new team, but I had to do the same thing last year at Wesley Chapel as a freshman,” Brown said. “Now we’ve meshed a lot together.”
That transition was a little more difficult for senior Shanel Sweet because she is the Gators point guard. She had to learn all new names while being responsible for calling out plays and setting up her teammates with precise passes.
“I’m used to the position,” Sweet said. “I’ve been a (shooting) guard too, but I really like being point. I live for tight games. I love having the ball in my hands.”
Making things even more difficult was the number of injuries and illnesses the squad had early on. Sweet had a badly jammed thumb and a sprained ankle that limited her for the first half of the season and made her miss two games, both losses for the Gators. Seniors Megan Thurston and Nicole Woodard also missed time early.
“I’m hoping the injury bug is out of our system now,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ll need to be playing our best in the district tournament, and then if we get through to regionals we know we’ll have to go through Gulf.”
Gulf (18-3) reached the regional semifinals last season and do not play the Gators in the regular season.
One thing that helped make the transition easier is Fitzpatrick also coached three of her basketball players on the Gators volleyball team, which include Julia Della Penna, Kendra Sheets and Woodard.
“She’s been the same from when she became our volleyball coach this year,” Della Penna said. “She pushes us sometimes, but then she also lets us chill and relax when she thinks we need it. She’s a great coach.”
Both Della Penna and Woodard said they prefer basketball to volleyball for similar reasons.
“In volleyball you have to wait to hit,” Woodard said. “In basketball you can go get the ball and do what you need without waiting.”
Woodard may prefer basketball, but she keeps the same defense-first mentality in both sports. She led the volleyball team with 136 blocks, tied for the fourth most in Florida. She is also one of the top blockers and rebounders for the basketball squad, leading the team with 43 blocks while adding 83 boards. Sheets has also contributed in the post, adding 96 rebounds and 5.4 points per game.
Della Penna is more of an outside shooter, averaging 8.2 points per game while adding 35 assists and 39 steals. Brown is the Gators second leading scorer, averaging 13.6 points while contributing 33 blocks and a team-high 259 rebounds and 70 steals.
Sweet is the top score with 18.9 per game plus a team-leading 94 assists. Her average of 5.9 per contest is tied for the 14th most in the state.
The district tournament is at Lecanto High beginning on Jan. 31. To make the regional tournament the Gators must reach the championship game.
“I got to play in regionals my sophomore year and I want to get back as a senior,” Della Penna said. “When we started I was hoping to have a winning season. Now I think we have the speed and talent to get past districts and play with Gulf in regionals. We have a great group of players and a great coach.”
The Gators next play against River Ridge High at home Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
-All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.