The trip to Lakeland for the state Final Four has been a rite of passage for members of the Dunbar girls basketball program for the last five years in Class 5A. The last two years Lee County flexed its muscles even more when Fort Myers joined the party up north and won the 6A state title last season.
Despite both squads returning enough talent to head back to state this season, reclassification threw a wrench into those travel plans. With both teams moving up to 7A, only one will have the opportunity to journey to Lakeland.
Not only will the Tigers and Green Wave being playing in the same region, but they’ll both inhabit District 7A-11, setting up three potential meetings this season, including a possible winner-take-all matchup in a regional semifinal.
“It’s going to add a little bit of drama to the season,” Fort Myers coach Chad Terrell said. “It’s surprising but, at the same time, it’s exciting.”
The Green Wave graduated one player and returns all five starters from a team that went 27-5 and posted a 60-45 win over Oakland Park Northeast in the 6A final.
That includes reigning News-Press Player of the Year Destanni Henderson, a five-star recruit ranked in the top 10 nationally in the Class of 2018. The 5-foot-9 guard shot 53 percent from the field while averaging 15.3 points, 4.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds and three steals per game.
Adding to Fort Myers’ outstanding guard play are UMass signee Autumn Giles and Furman University signee Jarya Outten. While junior center Alexsis Johnson, who came into her own in Lakeland, is also back, the Green Wave aren’t the biggest team and will need to rely on their guards for rebounding and defensive pressure.
Terrell’s team used the heartbreak of falling in the state semifinals in 2015 to fuel its championship run. He maintains the girls are still hungry for more hardware.
“When they come into the gym they know someone else in Florida is working harder,” he said.
That someone else could be practicing three miles across town.
Dunbar went 25-7 last season and fell to eventual state champion and DICK’S Sporting Goods national champion Jacksonville Ribault.
The Tigers will rely heavily on senior guard Dekeriya Patterson now that she’s back to 100 percent after suffering from anemia for the last two seasons which left her lethargic and unable to play full games. The LSU signee still averaged 17.1 points and 3.7 assists per game last season.
“Whatever we need she’ll give it to us,” Dunbar coach Dwayne Donnell said.
Patterson will be aided by freshman guard Deshannon Powell and senior forward Denasia Fenine, a transfer from Maine. Junior forward Jamiah Bland was a player of the finalist last season, but suffered a knee injury during the summer and is a question mark to suit up this season.
Bland’s status doesn’t change the expectations at Dunbar, which is chasing its first state title since 2012.
“I can’t remember the last time we didn’t win 20 games here, but these girls understand that’s not good enough here,” Donnell said. “They expectation is playing in the last game of the year (in Lakeland).”
Fort Myers could stand in the way of that.
The Tigers won four regular season games in a row over the Green Wave from 2012 to 2015 before Fort Myers won 59-52 last season.
Seeding for the district tournament will be on the line during their Dec. 9 showdown at the Wave Cave. The loser could be tested by an up and coming Lehigh team coached by former Fort Myers assistant Arthur Cedeno in a district semifinal.
Beyond that, a matchup in a regional semifinal looms.
“We think the winner of the regional semifinal is going to the Final Four,” Donnell said. “Who doesn’t love that?”
Contender: Gulf Coast
Sleepers: Riverdale, North Port
Players to watch: Anna Presson (Riverdale), C’dara Manual (Riverdale)
Outlook: Riverdale took down Gulf Coast in the district final last season, but had sophomore guard Yasmine Chang, a News-Press Player of the Year finalist, transfer to Gulf Coast. The Raiders’ strengths are rebounding and depth. It may be tough to hang with a stacked Sharks team. A postseason berth, however, is a strong possibility.
Contenders: Cape Coral, Charlotte, Island Coast
Sleepers: Ida Baker, Lemon Bay, North Fort Myers, Port Charlotte
Players to watch: Hailey Kalamaras (Jr., Island Coast), Anna-Maria Hofmann (Jr., Island Coast), Janielle Blue (Jr., Island Coast), Deidre Cheremond (Sr., Cape Coral), Edriana Hardin (Sr., Cape Coral), Crystal Tisme (So., Cape Coral), Doralisa Guzman (Sr., Cape Coral), Faith White (So., Cape Coral)
Outlook: Cape Coral is coming off a run to a regional final where it fell to eventual state champion Fort Myers. Cheremond is back to lead a team with high expectations. First-year coach Shari Gear, who was an assistant at Fort Myers last season, leads an Island Coast team, which finished 20-7 last season. The Gators have a lot of quickness and speed and will rely heavily on its strong defense.
Contenders: Fort Myers, Dunbar
Sleepers: Estero, Lehigh, South Fort Myers, East Lee County
Players to watch: Dekeriya Patterson (Sr., Dunbar), Denasia Fenine (Sr., Dunbar), Jamiah Bland (Jr., Dunbar), Deshannon Powell (Fr., Dunbar), Jarya Outten (Sr., Fort Myers), Autumn Giles (Sr., Fort Myers), Destanni Henderson (Jr., Fort Myers), Bethany Brunson (Jr., Fort Myers); Tatum Hayes (So., Fort Myers); Alexsis Johnson (Jr., Fort Myers), Alainna Yelling (Jr., East Lee) Ravyn Campbell (Jr., East Lee), Armani Stewart (Fr., East Lee), Aliesha Curry (So., Lehigh), Amani Desamours (Sr., Lehigh), Halie Holloway (Jr., Lehigh)
Outlook: This is a two-team race between the top two teams in Southwest Florida. Fort Myers is coming off a state championship season, returning three Division I recruits in Henderson, Outten (Furman signee) and Giles (UMass signee). While not the biggest team, the Green Wave guards will have to make up for it with rebounding and defensive pressure. Dunbar, which is moving up in class, reached a state semifinal last season where it fell to Jacksonville Ribault. The Tigers will go as LSU commit Patterson goes. Her supporting cast of transfer Fennie and Bland and super freshman Powell will vie to play up to the lofty expectations of this storied program.
Contenders: Cypress Lake, Lely, Immokalee
Players to watch: Shonteria Blanks (Sr., Cypress Lake), Mackenzie Ackerman (Sr., Cypress Lake), Alyssa Vetter (Sr., Cypress Lake)
Outlook: Cypress Lake will be led by a group of seniors who have been together for a few years and will be leaning on their experience. Since Dunbar left the district it will be up in the air as to which team survives the rigors of the season.
Contenders: Bishop Verot, Community School of Naples
Sleepers: Gateway Charter, St. John Neumann, Oasis Charter, LaBelle
Players to watch: Olivia Woolam (Sr., Bishop Verot), Caroline Snell (Sr., Bishop Verot), Elizabeth Dinsmore (Jr., Bishop Verot), Claire Woolam (So., Bishop Verot), Tamia Battle (So., Gateway), Anayah Molina (Fr., Gateway), Addison Potts (7th grade, Gateway), Savannah Lang (Fr., Oasis), Aliyah Wilson (Fr., Oasis)
Outlook: Bishop Verot knocked off Gateway Charter in last year’s district title game. The addition to Community School of Naples to the district could create problems for the Vikings, who could struggle with taller teams. Meanwhile, Gateway returns four of five starters making this a competitive district.
Contenders: Evangelical Christian, First Baptist, Seacrest Country Day
Sleepers: Everglads City, Moore Haven, Southwest Florida Christian Academy, Marco Island Academy
Players to watch: Rebekah Bergquist (So., SFCA), Sarah Kate Sheffield (Sr., SFCA), Aubree Matyas (Jr., SFCA), Campbell Severance (Jr., SFCA), McKenzie Lynk (Sr., ECS)
Outlook: Three to four teams should be in the mix for the district title, including ECS. The Sentinels finished 22-6 last season and should face stiff challenges from First Baptist and Seacrest. A younger squad, ECS may have some growing pains early, but should hit its stride late in the season.