Basketball always has been a big part of Sophia Witherspoon’s life.
She helped Fort Pierce Central High School’s girls basketball team win the Class 3A state title in 1987, was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference guard at the University of Florida and played for three WNBA teams over a seven-year span from 1997 to 2003.
Traveling from coast to coast to play against the top players on the biggest stages left an indelible mark on the Fort Pierce native.
In her seventh season coaching the team she led to the top 30 years ago, Witherspoon wants her team to learn more than just the X’s and O’s.
“If they can experience something other than what they see on a daily basis, it will open their eyes to be able to understand that there is so much more to life than just basketball,” Witherspoon said. “They’re learning life lessons through basketball.”
Last year, the Cobras embarked on a 4,938-mile trip to Kodiak, Alaska, the longest by an area team in any sport in 98 years of area athletics.
The sequel figures to be just as cool.
Fort Pierce Central begins play Dec. 27 in the sixth annual Gator Winter Classic in Henderson, Nevada, a stone’s throw — OK, it’s actually 16 miles, but who’s counting? — from Las Vegas.
Fourteen players, two coaches and one parent will board a Southwest Airlines plane Monday for the 2,258-mile flight from Palm Beach International Airport to McCarron International Airport in Las Vegas.
The Cobras, 4-1 entering Wednesday night’s game against St. Lucie West Centennial, have pool-play games against California prep school Rolling Hills (4-1) and two Nevada schools in Fernley (5-2) and Rancho (7-3).
Depending on the results, they will finish with one to three games in bracket play on Dec. 30.
While the Cobras have an experienced team that figures to challenge for the District 8-9A title later this season, players know this is going to be an experience that transcends dribbling, passing and shooting.
“We know it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Fort Pierce Central point guard Maryanne Logsdon said. “We don’t take it for granted.”
The itinerary includes a trip to Grand Canyon National Park, a 4½-hour drive from Henderson into neighboring Arizona.
Players also will get a look at the Las Vegas Strip — a 4-mile stretch of bright lights, casino hotels, fancy restaurants and big-name performers.
The team will tour the UNLV campus. Witherspoon arranged with Rebels women’s coach Kathy Olivier for the Cobras to sit in on a college practice.
“On the 31st, we’ll have a nice dinner together and bring in the new year as a group,” Witherspoon said.
Expect the Cobras to be all business on the court. Five starters returned from last season’s 10-14 team that lost to Vero Beach in the district semifinals.
Experiencing the West Coast style of play is something you can’t replicate in sunny South Florida.
“It’s also an opportunity to be seen by scouts, for the young ladies that want to go to the next level and play,” Witherspoon said. “It’s a little bit of everything.”
After the Alaska trip proved a success, Witherspoon scoured the internet for out-of-state tournaments that would fit snugly into the Cobras’ 2017-18 schedule.
After narrowing the possible events to three, she ultimately settled on Nevada over trips to Puerto Rico or Arizona.
Mother Nature should cooperate. The long-range forecast calls for daily highs near 60s and night lows in the upper 30s.
Seems just about right for a holiday sojourn.
The trip won’t cost players a penny. A year ago, the team raised $20,000 to pay for the Alaska trip. This year, the $13,000 expense, including a $500 entry fee, was defrayed by fundraisers and an anonymous donor.
“When you think big and you believe that, it can happen,” Witherspoon said. “When we started out last year, we had no idea how it was all going to come together.”
Fort Pierce Central went 3-0 in Alaska. A similar finish in Nevada could set up a special season.
“The girls have put the time in,” Witherspoon said. “What you guys are seeing now is the time that was put in during the offeseason.”
Logsdon, junior center Eleighseeea Rasmussen, junior forward Jania Thompson, senior Thamara Belizaire and sophomore shooting guard Denvia Morgan make up the starting five.
Their only loss is to private school Oxbridge Academy of West Palm Beach.
“”We have a lot of fun playing,” Logsdon said. “I love this group because there are no cliques on this team. Everyone interacts with one another. We love being around each other.”
Witherspoon said the goal, which never changes from year to year, is winning state.
So what if it last happened during her senior season three decades ago?
Nothing wrong with setting the bar as high as it will go, especially with an experienced team.
“I see so much of the characteristics in these young ladies that we had in that group,” Witherspoon said of the team that won gold under coach Marv Seitel.
No matter how the season turns out, players will get a scrapbook’s worth of memories from this trip alone.
“I”ve been blessed to have an amazing life through basketball,” Witherspoon said. “I want these young ladies at a young age to experience what I experienced.”