By Jeff Odom
While most of their fellow classmates are still sound asleep at 6 a.m., the Steinbrenner girls basketball team is busy conditioning to defend its Class 7A-District 9 championship.
Three days a week, fourth-year coach JR Allen gets his players together before the break of dawn for an hour of workout drills, telling them to “bring the juice” every morning before heading to their first class.
The squad performs sprints, bleacher runs and other exercises with certified athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach Ryan Ward to stay in top shape well before the first game of the season tips off.
“We set the bar pretty high having a great year last year going 22-3, and then winning the district championship,” Allen said. “We realize that that was last year. We’re not the same team. We don’t have the same players. We still want to make sure we achieve the goal of defending that title at the very least, but we have higher aspirations of going further.”
The Warriors lost multiple seniors at the conclusion of last season that saw the Lutz program go perfect in district play. Principle among the departures is starting guard Alexis Wright, who is attending the University of Miami after averaging 6.3 points, four rebounds and two steals in 2011-12.
The squad also lost much of its depth and size, as 6-foot-2 center Rebecca Cohen (5.3 rebounds, 4.4 points, 1.5 blocks) and 5-foot-10 guard Gabby Sebastian (2.1 rebounds) also graduated.
Allen said the loss of his five seniors, all of whom grew up playing together in youth leagues, was like nothing he’s ever felt. He added that the early conditioning gives him a better eye for who can fill the void while helping the girls develop chemistry.
“Those girls are irreplaceable in my eyes,” Allen said. “Last year, we were one deep, sometimes two deep, on the roster. When (starting forward/center) Rachel Briere went down against Wiregrass last year, I had a senior in Rebecca Cohen who stepped up and just played great that night in a huge win that gave us confidence to win the district. Depth like that will certainly be missed until we find out what these new girls are capable of doing, which is why we do this.”
Many of Allen’s returning players are showing plenty of confidence early on.
Four-year starters like guard Justice Thigpen (4.6 assists, 3.4 points, 2.5 steals) and forward/guard Bailey Hooker (19.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 steals, 2.1 blocks) are keeping the team focused with senior leadership.
Steinbrenner also returns junior guard Taylor Thigpen (four points, 2.8 assists), and may be close to getting back senior forward Lauren Shedd, who averaged 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in five games before being diagnosed with breaks in L4 and L5 vertebra of her back.
Allen said he has been very impressed with the workouts by sophomore center Rachel Briere (10.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 steals), freshman Courtney Hall and senior forward Jessica Weatherman.
Weatherman, who is a kicker on the Warriors’ football while competing in track and flag football, said it works to her advantage with both football and basketball conditioning in the fall.
“It keeps me conditioned and keeps me in shape,” Weatherman said. “In football, I don’t have a big say because I’m the only girl. In basketball, I kind of show that a little bit more, and I like it.”
Hall, who played at Martinez Middle for Steinbrenner assistant coach Chip Geraghty, said it is a lot different, especially with the early schedule.
“The first week, it was tough because we were just starting, and I was out of shape,” Hall said. “I still am, but I’ve gotten better as we’ve gone on. It’s gotten easier.”
One of the team’s biggest rivals and 2011-12 district runner-up Freedom added power to its roster in the offseason with Faith Woodard, who transferred from Riverview.
Allen said he’s not concerned despite the Patriots’ addition of the 6-foot-2 senior forward who averaged 21.4 points, 11 rebounds, four steals, 3.1 blocks and three assists last season.
“They’re no disputing the fact that they’ve got great players over there, but sometimes it takes more than a great player to win a championship,” Allen said. “You’ve got to have some great chemistry, a little bit of luck and the talent doesn’t hurt either. When you can get 13/14 girls all buying in and believing one common goal, then special things will happen. I’m not worried with what’s going on over on Bruce B. Downs. I know our girls will be ready to go.”
Steinbrenner wraps up the morning team workouts this week, but will still have early conditioning for individual positions once the team is selected. The first day of official practice is Oct. 22, with regular season games beginning Nov. 12.
–Stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches