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A Panhandle Fab 5

November 13, 2014
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From do-it-all centers to sharp-shooting, assists-minded guards, these five players are sure to dominate the hardwood this season.
NADIA FINGALL, Choctaw

Nadia Fingall’s suitors have always been there.
The 6-foot-4 frame, low post moves and physicality have a way of bringing in Division I programs, as does a 4.0 GPA intellect.
First it was Oklahoma.
After producing lines like 21 points,13 rebounds and 11 blocks — Jan 11, 2013 versus Tate — her freshman year, even an unpolished Fingall was getting looks from the Big 12 Sooners.
Soon after, Florida State followed.
“Those two have been there from the beginning,” she said.
Then this summer, following a 15-point, seven-rebound season where her defensive peripherals shined in helping lead Choctaw to a second straight state runner-up campaign, top-notch programs across the country joined the courtship.
ACC powerhouses Duke and North Carolina and SEC programs Florida and Georgia entered the mix.
Yet it wasn’t until Stanford — her dream school — came calling that Fingall felt the heat of her recruiting spotlight.
“It’s really overwhelming, but I’m really glad I get to experience this,” she said. “Just learning about different programs how different coaches coach, it’s really cool. In talking to coaches, just their personalities are so different and you can see that reflected in how their programs are run.
“At first it was like Stanford was the dream destination, but now there’s so many choices it’s hard to pick.”
Choctaw coach Don Brown, who has been through a similar experience with daughter and current FSU guard Brittany Brown, estimates there are around 25 universities that have asked about Fingall.
So coach, does she deserve the hype?
“She has all the tools and talent,” he said. “We’ve been working with her not only for this season, but for the next level so she can be equipped to
move on and excel at a Division I college.”
What about Fingall’s game makes her so coveted?
For starters, she has solidified herself as a dominant presence in the post. From shot blocking to protecting the glass to backing up defenders and getting off her shot, Fingall hasn’t met anyone who can defend her in the post.
But now she’s broadening her game into an inside-outside threat. No longer will her game be dependent on entry passes from the perimeter.
Fingall will be looking to create her own shot.
“I’ve definitely worked on my outside game and not just focusing on being the 4/5 player,” she said. “I’m focusing on ranging out to the wing, so definitely a lot more shooting, a lot more ball-handling and a lot more taking the ball to the hoop.”
Range-wise, how far can her game extend?
“I can hit the 3,” she said. “Me and my dad have been working on that. I’m a lot more consistent.”
As for what that will translate to individually, Fingall said: “I’m expecting 25 and 10 every night. That’s what I want to be my average.”
Team-wise, the goals may be loftier.
“Definitely getting back to state and winning is the major team goal we have,” she said.

— Seth Stringer
JESSIE DAY, Niceville

When Jessie Day steps on the hardwood, she’s not just playing for herself.
The Niceville junior is playing for her town. She’s playing for her older sister, former first-team all-area Lauren Day. She’s playing for her dad — literally, David Day is her coach.
For the average player, the weight may seem too heavy to bear.
Yet the junior is no run-of-the-mill 6-footer, confined to the rigors of the post. She can play all five positions, from point guard to the enforcer down low, which is just one chapter in her unique narrative.
Niceville has an athletic program defined by district titles, deep postseason runs and state titles. Yet when Day laced up her kicks as a freshman two years ago, the Niceville girls basketball program was the outlier.
Her older sister had left Niceville for greener pastures in Choctaw, where in two years she teamed up with current FSU standout Brittany Brown and helped lead the Indians to two straight Elite Eights and a state runner-up effort.
The latter produced a pair of 42-9, 44-18 routes against Niceville, where Jessie Day shined — well, as much as she could — for a 5-12 crew.
“She’s like the closest person to me,” Day said of her sister. “But I couldn’t leave Niceville. I wanted to rebuild the program. I wanted to play for my town.”
Her dad joined her the following year. From 5-12 to 14-10, the transformation was in motion.
It’d be a stretch to put the pretender-to-contender shift solely on Day. Or, for that matter, her dad.
Yet peel back the layers of Day’s stats, and it’s easy to see why the Eagles produced their first winning season in five years.
Fifteen points, seven rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals and blocks per game not only led the team, they paved the way for first-team all-area honors and all-state recognition.
Yet she’s only scratched the surface of her versatility.
“I can bring up the ball, I can stay on the wing, I can play inside and be physical,” she said. “I can adapt to any situation and play whatever role my team needs. I pride myself on being diverse.”
What the team needs is a leader. And she’s glad to fill that role.
Take her answer to this hypothetical question. Asked what play she and her dad would draw up in a scenario where the Eagles were down a point or two with less than 10 seconds left, Day didn’t hesitate.
“We’d have me take the inbounds pass then I’d go to the corner and spot up,” she said. “We know I’d make the shot because if I missed it, I’d never be able to live with myself.”
That, in essence, is Day. Always ready to bear the burden.

— Seth Stringer

JENSIS COLEMAN, Crestview

Jensis Coleman has a message for Crestview’s opponents this season: Leave your press at home.
“It doesn’t phase me,” the senior said.
Just 5 feet, 4 inches tall, the Bulldogs’ main ball handler put up 17 points and seven assists last season during Crestview’s run to the Region 1-7A final and a 22-8 record. More important than sliding through the net or zooming passes to teammates was Coleman’s ability to laugh in the face of pressure.
“Her best strength to me is her ball-handling,” Crestview coach Kathy Combest said. “We’ve had teams like Pensacola and Pine Forest try to press us, but we haven’t had a problem.”
Pressure will be part of the year, though, as Coleman is Crestview’s only senior in an effort to lead the Bulldogs back to the regional final, and hopefully further.
She is a “true point guard,” Combest added, in that she has no issues handling the rock and the leadership for the squad. Both bring pressure — but, again, Coleman doesn’t mind.
“I like the intensity and pressure,” she said. “I just feel like I can lead my team from that spot. … I just work hard and try to push myself. When I push myself, it pushes others.”

— Devin Golden
KATIE O’NEAL, Freeport
Katie O’Neal drives to the lane with a fearlessness that is admirable for someone of her size and at her position.
The Freeport senior can take bumps and bruises from other girls with no worries, no flinching or holding back, something she had to teach herself.
“I’d go to the Boys and Girls Club and scrimmage against boys,” she said of her freshman and sophomore years, when at Fort Walton Beach. “After scrimmaging with guys, it helps you become more physical.”
Around 5 feet, 7 inches tall and a commit to the University of West Florida, O’Neal averaged 16.3 points and 7.1 assists per game as a junior and is the all-around player Freeport coach Michael Myrick needs handling the offense and directing the team.
It’s that fearless nature pushing O’Neal — older sister to teammate Megan O’Neal, the team’s leading scorer last season with 17-plus points per game — to the top.
And that characteristic isn’t limited to taking bumps from larger opponents, but also calming the entire unit as a coach-on-the-floor persona.
“There have been times in close games where everyone is nervous and overthinking,” Katie O’Neal said. “It’s the point guard’s job to calm down and settle down.”

— Devin Golden
KRISTA McQUEEN, Walton
Krista McQueen never wanted to be an average player.
With a height of 6 feet and the wingspan to dominate in the post, she could’ve been content with her physical advantages to keep her above most in the sport she loves.
That wasn’t enough, though.
The senior developed low-post moves and a mid-range jump shot to show she’s truly a basketball player.
“I don’t just want to be an average player,” she said. “I want to move beyond this level and play college basketball. Eighth grade, that’s when I knew I really wanted to play basketball in high school and college.”
Averaging 19 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season, she and teammate Deja Tucker brought Walton its third consecutive district championship. With her and Tucker seniors, they aim for a fourth straight league title, plus more.
And some college, somewhere, will find a hidden gem in DeFuniak Springs.
“This past summer was her first on an AAU team in the month of July,” said Zaria Williams, Walton’s new coach. “Walton is a pretty small high school.
“She can step out and knock down some shots, though. (Those post players) are definitely not a dime a dozen.”

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