In case anyone was wondering, Winter Haven has not been celebrating its latest state championship — not when there is work to be done.
Fresh off winning their third consecutive FHSAA state title, the Winter Haven girls basketball team — a squad used to riding around in celebration parades this time of year — has returned to the gym practicing and sweating harder than ever before after securing a berth in the Geico High School Basketball Nationals slated for Friday in New York City.
“You would think after a state championship the team dies down or the heads get too big, but we just keep practicing hard, like we did the first day,” Winter Haven senior guard Amaya Small said. “After state, it is harder because bodies are tired and we have to keep up the same intensity. We have to keep our minds in it. We have to stay together.”
So instead of catching confetti, streamers or glitter-dust and listening to jubilant car horns beep along a parade route, the Blue Devils have been grabbing rebounds and listening to head coach Johnnie Lawson yell, “box out.”
“It’s a lot different,” said Winter Haven senior guard Diamond Battles, who is signed to play at Central Florida next season. “Last year we hoped for nationals but we didn’t get it so we were celebrating with the city and our families and had the banquet. But this time we have a chance to have a bigger parade and have more people support us by going to nationals.”
The Blue Devils (32-1), ranked 20th in the nation by ESPNW 25 Power Rankings and 14th by Max Preps, will square off against No. 2 Hamilton Heights Christian Academy from Chattanooga, Tennessee in the first of two semifinals Friday at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, New York – located in the Queensboro section of New York City.
Hamilton Heights finished the tournament a year ago as national runner-up to Miami Country Day and is entering the tournament as the top seed with a 24-2 record and riding an 11-game winning streak.
“They are the tallest team that I have played against in 20 years. I have never seen a team that tall, and at every position,” Lawson said. “They do it all. They have a press defense. They also shoot the 3- (pointer) really well and they penetrate really well. It was interesting to see how balanced they are.”
Hamilton Heights only fields an eight-player roster, but five of the girls stand more than 6-feet tall. Sophomore center Kamilla Cardosa is the tallest at 6-6 and is ranked No. 3 in the nation by the Terrific 25 (Class of 2020).
“Well they are big, and just because they are big doesn’t mean they don’t move,” Lawson said. “They move very well and they are long, so they get in the passing lanes very well. And of course, their rebounding is off the charts. It will be interesting, to say the least.”
Winter Haven’s tallest players are senior power forward Tyia Singleton (6-2) and senior center Rushell Jacob (6-2), so the Blue Devils are focusing heavily on rebounding drills in practice — especially one brutal version.
“It’s almost equal to football’s Bull in the Ring,” Lawson said. “Whoever loses the rebound, they have a 10-second down-and-back (run). So it is pretty intense. In the past, we’ve had some broken noses, some twisted ankles but we have to do this in order for us to win.”
Battles, who holds three FHSAA state championship rings, said sticking to the fundamentals is key in preparing for the national tournament, which includes precision passing, less turnovers and, of course, rebounding.
“Boxing out is No. 1, we have to box out. It’s just the simple things we have to do and not make mistakes,” Battles said.
Second-seed Westlake High School from Atlanta will play third-seeded Central Valley from Spokane, Washington in the second semifinal at 1 p.m. Both semifinals will be televised on ESPNU. The final is slated for 10 a.m. Saturday and will be aired on ESPN2.
The boys tournament, featuring two Florida teams – top-ranked Montverde Academy and Fort Lauderdale University School — will begin with quarterfinals action on Thursday and will continue through Saturday.