By Kyle LoJacono
Two years ago, the Land O’ Lakes girls basketball team had, by any measure, the most successful season in program history.
The Gators (4-2) set a program record with 24 wins, claimed a district title and made the regional finals for the first time in the school’s 37-year history.
The squad lost four of five starters to graduation or transferring and slipped to 8-14 last season.
Now, in coach Phyllis Crain’s second year, Land O’ Lakes is starting to regain some of the confidence it had during the 2010-11 season.
“Last year was a development year,” said Crain, who played at Gulf and the University of Charleston and was an assistant at the University of Tampa for nine years. “We had to get the girls to learn the game of basketball and develop their skills more.”
A near upset at the end of last season showed the Gators a turnaround was coming.
They lost by just three to the eventual Class 6A-District 10 champion Tarpon Springs in the league semifinals.
“The team together started having more confidence,” said senior small forward Sarah Nichols. “We played with a team that is really up there, and that showed us what we can do.”
Crain said she’s seen something remain because of how last season ended.
“What has carried over was the work ethic that’s needed to be successful,” Crain said. “They’ve had a little bit of success, and they want more.”
Nichols knows firsthand how quickly a team can go from below .500 to elite.
Land O’ Lakes was 4-10 the year before the regional finals run, which was her first season on the varsity squad.
“I feel like we have a lot of potential this year too,” Nichols said.
The squad is forced to replace power forward Kendra Sheets, who led the Gators in points (7.5) and rebounds (9.1) per game last year.
“Kendra was very physical,” Crain said. “She’s hard to replace, but we have some kids stepping in and playing a little more physical, but Kendra, she could jump and really get after rebounds. We’re working toward building that same fighter mentality this year.”
Nichols (16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds) has helped offset what Sheets did on the scoreboard and on the boards, as has freshman point guard Makala Canada (11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds).
“She’s been amazing,” Nichols said of Canada, who moved from New York in August. “I’m so happy she’s a part of the team. I had no idea she was coming in, and when I saw her the first time I was like, wow. She’s such a good player.”
Canada said she’s thrived in Crain’s clear-cut coaching nature.
“She’s very up-front with what she wants out of us, and when she wants it she lets you know,” Canada said. “She just wants us to do as much as we can to play as well as we’re able.”
Nichols said Crain has been a big reason why the Gators again believe they can be successful.
“She’s brought our confidence back,” Nichols said. “We lost all our players, and she had to help us rebuild again. She’s made us work hard; we’re getting better, and it’s great.”
Crain said confidence is important, but it’s just one element needed if Land O’ Lakes plans to return to the postseason.
“We have to play as a team and we have to be balanced,” Crain said. “You can’t just have one person scoring every night. If that happens then teams can just take that one person away. We have to play as a team, recognize it’s a team sport and understand that everyone is going to have their night.”
The Gators host Central Dec. 11 before traveling to Pasco and district rival Mitchell Dec. 12 and Dec. 14, respectively. All games start at 7:30 p.m.