Coaching consensus: Lady Hornets to meet Pirates in 6A-7 rematch

Springstead senior Reagan Huden (10) attempts a shot defended by Central High’s Monay Johnson. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
Hernando High’s Ali Bronson (23) is fouled from behind while guarded by Central High’s MyKenna Corbett (14) in the Class 6A, District 7 Tournament at Weeki Wachee High. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

 

WWHS’s Shayleese “Mama” Vasquez. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
GIRLS BASKETBALL

Hernando Christian Academy,

Springstead seek third straight

regional playoff berths in Feb.

By TONY CASTRO

HernandoSport.com

Walt Cermak

After 42 winters of FHSAA girls basketball, only one Hernando County program has ever reached the coveted Final Four: Hernando High in 1988 in Class 3A and in 1999 in Class 4A – both under the winningest-ever female mentor and HHS Hall of Famer Walt Cermak.

Season 43 tips off with the county’s six programs all jostling to eventually become the county’s first program to reach “The Show” set for Feb. 26-March 3 at The Lakeland Center for the first time in 18 years.

Here’s a look at each program.

Weeki Wachee: Class of the County

It wasn’t that long ago (2013-14) when the Lady Hornets were not considered a program.

That’s what happens when you’re everyone’s Senior Night invitee.

Four l-o-n-g seasons of winless hoops gave way to ex-Michigander Mike Munro resettling in the Sunshine State in 2014.

Munro, who coached “Up North” for almost 300 prep victories has methodically transformed WWHS from an afterthought to the school’s second-best female program behind volleyball.

The US-19 crew is coming off its best-ever season at 21-9 claiming its first-ever Hernando County title, hoisting runner-up trophies at the Hernando High Holiday Tourney and 6A-7 and capturing its initial regional win over 6A-8 district champion Holiday-Anclote.

The Hornets lost four seniors to graduation including its 2016-17 captain and backbone Taylor Miller.

Taylor Miller

Miller, a two-time All-Hernando County all-star, averaged 12.5 points per game, over nine rebounds and ranked second in the local circuit in three-point field goals (57).

Due mainly to her loss, WWHS needed to compensate for a 30 percent drop in points and free throws made, and find another Annie Oakley from the perimeter.

The void didn’t last long.

Mykenna Corbett

Central High junior Mykenna Corbett opted to transfer this summer after two All-County seasons with the Bears.

Corbett, who led the circuit in three-pointers (63), ranked third in the county in scoring at 15.4 ppg and more importantly could handle the ball against pressure defenses, aka Crystal River.

Corbett joins six returning WWHS lettermen from last winter including: seniors Halie Bondulich, Hannah Storie and Brook McMurray; juniors Seytia Hill, Rhiannon Randall and Shaleese “Mama” Vasquez.

The versatile Hill averaged a double/double in scoring (11.2) and rebounding (11.1) last winter while Vasquez averaged 10.8 ppg, and almost 10 caroms per tilt while finishing second in the circuit in blocked shots.

Halie Bondulich

Bondulich led the county in her favorite department – assists – at 3.87 apg. She was also the hero of the “Shot Heard Around Hernando” when she sank the winning shot as the buzzer expired to best HHS in the 6A-7 semifinals, 38-37.

Storie, along with returning starters Hill, Vasquez and Bondulich, buried 24 treys on 30 games last season averaging 3.87 ppg.

Newcomers include two members of last year’s junior varsity Hornets – juniors Taylor Carbone and Sabrina Scott – along side freshman guard Morgan McDaniel.

Third-year WWHS skipper Mike Munro readily admits losing Miller created a huge void, which was quickly filled.

Mike Munro Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

“When Taylor graduated we lost a tremendous leader. Someone with tremendous knowledge of the game. Miller understood situations. You didn’t have to explain a play twice to her,” noted Munro, who entered his 18th prep season at 331-85. “Now, our leadership comes via committee led by Hill and Mama.

“… This group is a little older and little bit faster,” described Munro, Hernando County’s defending Coach of the Year. “Our new freshman (McDaniel) played a lot of AAU ball; she can play.”

WWHS opened its eighth season Monday night against Palm Harbor University with a 68-45 win.

“We had 18 assists as a team and Halie did her thing with eight,” shared Munro. “What we’re really emphasizing this year is shooting. In my first year it was all about learning to win games. My second year was learning how to play man-to-man defense. Now, we’re stressing our shooting. We weren’t much a foul shooting team last year (converting 46 percent and losing its best foul shooter Miller). We’ve probably shot over 6,000 since practice has started.”

From three-point land, Corbett drained four treys on Monday against Palm Harbor.

“I think we’ve got some other kids who can make threes,” stressed Munro. “Sabrina (Scott) led our jayvees last season with 31, so we have some options.”

On predicting the county race, Munro opted against picking his team as the front runners.

“Ever heard of the sophomore jinx?,” queried Munro. “That’s what we’re fighting. We can’t believe all the press clippings and think just because we show up, we’re gonna win games. I think Nature Coast will be tough; they’ve got that aircraft carrier (6-foot-3 Kayla Langley) in the middle. With her, they’ll be dangerous.”

In 6A-7, where the defending district champion Crystal River Pirates will host, “The Pirates are the team to beat,” pointed out Munro. “I think Nature Coast should be considered to play in the final, too.”

On where the Hornets will fit it, “We’ve got to have our shooting shoes on tight,” expressed Munro. “We have to go out and prove it every night.”

NCT: Enough of a supporting cast?

Nature Coast Technical struggled through 2016-17 campaign particularly searching for a second scoring option to compliment Langley.

Kayla Langley

Langley finished as the circuit’s No. 2 scorer at 18.4 and leading rebounder (11.8) and best shot blocker (2.77).

Despite a 9-16 slate entering the 6A-7 semis, NCT led CRHS, 36-29 with 5:16 left in the third quarter at Weeki Wachee and 51-47 with 2:46 left in regulation before the Pirates tied matters at 51-all.

In overtime, CRHS topped the Sharks, 64-60.

That sterling outing gave the Sharks a taste of what the future may hold.

No one graduated from the squad though four players from last winter’s 12-member roster are not back.

Ahnesti Allen, who would’ve have been the team’s fifth returning starter, but she relocated with her family after the school year.

Haley Jutting

NCT does return seven players including: seniors Velma Brinson, Haley Jutting and Dawn Posey; juniors Langley, Angelis Diaz, Crystal Ortiz and Danielle Crima.

An eighth player from last winter, Aliaya Cherry, was promoted from the JV squad.

Due mostly to the departure of Allen, NCT must muster an additional 10 percent of its offense to again average its 40.4 points per game.

Fortunately, Allen was not a perimeter threat as the Sharks have retained 71-of-72 three-pointers from last winter.

Emily Gore

“I like all the returnees. We can build on what we did last year,” revealed 8th-year mentor Emily Gore. “Having Kayla back is huge. But our guards also have a another year under their belts, which will help.

“Our guards (Crima, Jutting) should be stronger,” explained Gore. “The emphasis this year is on shooting. There was a lot of frustration last year because of how young we were as a group. I think we’re primed to have a good season.”

Despite the loss of Allen’s points, “We can make that up,” countered Gore. “Velma is a great defender.”

Gazing ahead at the county circuit, “Weeki Wachee has the most returning players, plus the transfer from Central,” pointed out Gore. “I thought we competed well against them during the summer league.

“Springstead, with Regan (Huden), always gives them a chance. Hernando graduated their bigs, but they’re quick.”

Gore didn’t mince her words on the 6A-7 picture, “Crystal River will again be tough. They’ve got their best player back and her younger sister. I think the other team everyone is chasing is Weeki Wachee.”

Gore, whose team solved Tampa-Wharton by six points in the preseason, admits the Sharks’ biggest strength is Langley’s production in the paint.

“She’s done it for two seasons. Our guards have to step up,” insisted Gore. “Overall, we’ve got to stay away from foul trouble.

“Success for us is finishing with a winning record and playing for the district championship,” predicted Gore.

Hernando: The Mission is Transition

The Purple and Gold finished 17-7 but fell victim to a controversial field goal by Weeki Wachee’s Bondulich (everyone on the HHS bench and all their fans indicated that she traveled before the scoreboard signaled 0:00) at the buzzer to snap the Leopards’ season-best, seven-game winning streak.

Ali Bronson
Taylor Neblock

Graduation cost the Leopards three players including two starters: its best all-around athlete Alice “Ali” Bronson (11.1 ppg, and leading rebounder) and the team’s No. 2 rebounder, power forward Taylor Neblock (6.38 ppg).

The loss of that pair will force the Leopards to replace nearly 38 percent of their points, including 57 percent (113 of 199) of its free throws.

HHS does return eight players including seniors Karli Kimbrough, Chloe Mayo, Ja’Shayla Byrd and Kaitlyn Costa-White, juniors Nakayla Roberts and Taylyn Murwin and sophomores Taliyah Dowdell and Hayden Kimbrough.

Karli Kimbrough, Roberts and Murwin are all returning starters.

Taylyn Murwin
Karli Kimbrough

Murwin was second in the circuit in assists at 3.26 apg, Roberts averaged 10.1 ppg mostly as a terror at the top of HHS press defense and Kimbrough averaged 6.38 ppg while burying 27 treys.

“We lose a ton with Ali,” expressed eighth-year mentor Kevin Bittinger. “When you lose your best player, you lose leadership, your best passer, your best rebounder. There wasn’t wasn’t much she couldn’t do.

“Now, we have a four-year letterman in Karli and Nakayla and Murwin have each played two years, so we have experience. We’re still working on our lineup,” added Bittinger. “We’ll probably play a lot of matchup basketball.”

Bittinger didn’t hide his team’s identity.

The veteran mentor expects to roll out a five-guard lineup and run up and down the court.

He understands the pitfalls ahead.

Kevin Bittinger
Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

“We’re gonna turn the ball over, but we are what we are,” noted Bittinger. “If we’re walking (the ball up the court in a half-court set) we’re dying. We’re athletic across the board. We’ll see who can stay with us.”

Maturity, pointed out Bittinger, might be this team’s biggest improvement. As a group, they’ve grown up. Last year’s bitter semifinal loss at Weeki Wachee definitely serves as motivation for this season.

As far as concerns, Bittinger realizes the Leopards are not deep. He admits the team must stay away from injuries and foul trouble.

“When we have an open shot, take it,” emphasizes Bittinger. “Win or lose, teams will know they’ve played us.”

Configuring the county, “Weeki Wachee has all the pieces in place. I like Coach Munro, but please tell him he’s got the team to beat,” noted Bittinger.

On the district scene, “Crystal River is the best team, Weeki Wachee is the second-best,” insisted Bittinger. “Everyone else has to beat either one of them to make the playoffs.”

Diagramming HHS’ goals, “We feel we have the pieces to compete, but we’ve got to be smart and play smart basketball,” declared Bittinger. “Like everybody else, we’ll have to deal with adversity. We’re gonna make a ton of mistakes. But if we minimize our turnovers and stay out of foul trouble, we’re gonna stay in basketball games. … Others can’t play at our pace.”

Life goes on with Corbett-less Bears

Central finished 12-11 in 2016-17.

CHS claimed seven wins across its last nine games – both losses, however, were by 12 points to Hernando.

The Ken Austin Parkway crew graduated three players including 2016-17 All-County selectee Maddie Lewis.

The versatile Corbett’s defection to WWHS hurt the Bears’ ability to handle the ball, score and defend.

Monay Johnson                                         Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Of the nine players who played for Central last winter, three are back including: seniors Monay Johnson (7.59 ppg) and Coral Davis (1.0 ppg) and sophomore Kayla Dawson (2.83 ppg).

With six players gone, the Bears will have to compensate to replace 767 of its 1,006 points (76 percent), 97 of 100 three pointers (97 percent), 68-of-114 free throws made (60 percent).

Newcomers include senior Ely Bor, junior Shayla Hanna, sophomores Mungusa Runogo, Brianna O’Brien and Rocquel Valentine and freshmen Anna Schumacher, Janavia Sepulveda and Jasmine James.

CHS opened the season with losses to Ocala-Trinity Catholic, 56-21, and Springstead 52-43.

In Spring Hill, James paced the Bears with a team-best 17 points, including 15 in the first half, while Johnson added 12 markers.

Central Head Coach Penny Gressick did not return repeated calls for comment for this story.

Three district finals in a row for Eagles?

F.W. Springstead is lone Hernando County public school female hoops program to reach back-to-back district finals in the rugged Class 7A, District 8 Tournament.

SHS graduated four seniors, including two pivotal starters, Sarah Vo and Tierra Houston, from its 12-10 team from 2016-17.

Morgan Nelski

Six lettermen return including three-time all-star and 2016-17 Player of the Year Huden (18.8 ppg) and fellow seniors Morgan Nelski (5.94 ppg) and Gabby Basto (2.25), and juniors 6-foot-1 Yhanni Batts (5.70 ppg) Sydney Sauto (4.08), Alexa Vilca (0.83 ppg).

Shyann McElwain

Newcomers include 6-foot-1 senior transfer Shaianne McElwain (5.60 ppg) from Hernando Christian, senior Kyla Rivera, junior Leydaliz Rodriguez and freshmen Tallia Russell and Tiana Stifanic.

Another move-in, sophomore Brooklyn Glines, is expected to be eligible for the third nine weeks in mid-January.

SHS opened the season on Wednesday rallying from a 15-point second quarter deficit to trim visiting Central, 52-43.

Huden, who lead the county in scoring and foul shooting (74 percent), finished second in steals (3.79 spg) and ranked third in three-pointers (51), poured in 33 points in the latest win over Central.

Batts, who misfired on 10-of-15 field goal attempts, managed a double/double performance in scoring and rebounds against the Bears.

The Spring Hill crew played Wednesday night sans perimeter-dynamo Nelski and Vilca, who were both out-of-town during Thanksgiving vacation.

Despite the personnel losses, fourth-year SHS mentor Jay McNerney believes this year’s team has what it takes to compete in the rigorous 7A-8 Tourney set for Mitchell High.

“What I like? We’re a little bigger across the board with Yhanni, McElwain and Stifanic in the paint,” insisted McNerney. “I think we have a lot of interchangeable parts to matchup my opponents. We’re gonna put five kids out there who can all defend.”

SHS’ biggest loss is Vo.

Sarah Vo

“Sarah could score, but she was my secondary ball handler,” identified McNerney. “She’s huge, especially if Huden went down to injury or was saddled with foul trouble. For us right now, Huden has to play the whole game. Now when Vilca and Glines are back, they can fill that slot.”

Jay McNerney

On what McNerney needs to see improvement on, “We’ve gotta do a better job of finishing scoring opportunities around the basket and defending. We work with the bigs every day on being patient and translating what we’re doing in practice to the games.

“Finishing around the basketball is probably my biggest concern,” noted McNerney.

McNerney didn’t quibble at who is the team to beat in the county.

“Weeki Wachee has the best team, top-to-bottom. I think they have the county’s second-best player from last year (Corbett). That new freshman (McDaniel) is off the AAU circuit and will also help them. I like Coach Munro and I welcome the challenge of playing them twice, but I want to beat him,” explained McNerney.

In analyzing 7A-8, “Sunlake has won the last two years and they’re stacked,” warned McNerney. “They return everybody except a point guard and they had another girl transfer in. Land O’ Lakes will be good and Mitchell always has athletes.”

On Springstead’s goal, “Our No. 1 goal is to win the district tournament. A nice by-product would be to win the county. To do that, we’ve gotta beat Nature Coast.

“… The only way to have fun is by winning. But my job is to teach these girls how to do things the right way,” added McNerney.

HCA: Seeks seek three-peat

Since finishing 10-10 in 2014-15, Hernando Christian Academy has posted back-to-back district championship seasons under Mike Drummond.

The Lady Lions, however, are in a bit of transitional phase. The Emerson Road cagers graduated three seniors off last winter’s county-best 23-3 squad including 2015-16 All-County pick Cayla Phillips (13.8 ppg) and Lauren Zappone (6.08 ppg).

Their starting center, McElwain, transferred to Springstead, and five others opted not to return to the team.

All told, HCA opens Tuesday versus Genesis Prep attempting to makeup 680 of last winter’s 1,119 points (61 percent), 45-of-67 three-pointers (67 percent), and 64-of-98 free throws made (65 percent).

Drummond seeks his third straight district title with six returnees including sisters Milly, Abby and Esther Jackson, Cassidy Coffman, Lauren Cantrell and Maddie Tyler.

Milly Jackson
Abby Jackson

Junior Milly Jackson (10.4 ppg) and sophomore Abby Jackson (2.84) are the team’s two returning starters. Milly led the county in steals last winter averaging 4.16 spg.

Drummond didn’t need much time to reply what he misses most from 2016-17, “We’re gonna miss Phillips’ scoring. She was quite a prolific scorer,” identified Drummond. “I told her for weighing 84 pounds, she was tough to handle. She and Zappone were great leaders, too. That pair went 40-8 across their last two seasons.

Looking ahead, “I’m excited for the future because we’re a little different,” noted the eighth-year mentor, who needs 13 wins to reach the coveted 100-win plateau. “We’re also gonna miss McElwain in the middle. She gave us a presence in the paint. We’re replacing her with Maddie Tyler, who is more athletic.

“I see Esther Jackson as replacing Cayla (Phillips). She’s really Cayla’s clone,” smiled Drummond. “Our biggest challenge is our depth with only seven returning kids. Last year, we had a lot of interchangeable parts with 15 players.”

Drummond pointed to his returning player’s IQ as its strength. Because they’re so bright, he said, they push each other.

After the returning core group, look for a trio of middle schoolers: Lydia Jackson, Emma Detmer and Morgan Knott to pad the roster.

According to Drummond, look for the Lady Lions to push the ball on offense.

Mike Drummond

“We’re not a good half-court team,” noted Drummond. “We’re probably going to run 4-5 guard offenses.”

As far as three-peating in 2A-4, “I told the girls we’ve got targets on our backs,” Drummond said. “Bayshore Christian will be better. They’re hosting districts. We traditionally have struggled there.

“… I think Seven Rivers will also be in the mix. Honestly, there are 4-5 teams in the district who could win it,” added Drummond. “We need to compete every night we step on the court. We begin play on Tuesday. By Wednesday, we’ve gotta get better every game after that.”

                                 Central Bears

By the Numbers: Central Bears

Graduation losses: 3

Returning Lettermen: 3

Returning Starters: 2

Seniors: 3

 

Hernando Leopards

By the Numbers: Hernando Leopards

Graduation losses: 3

Returning Lettermen: 8

Returning Starters: 3

Seniors: 4

 

By the Numbers: Nature Coast Technical Sharks

            Nature Coast Technical Sharks

Graduation losses: 0

Returning Lettermen: 7

Returning Starters: 4

Seniors: 3

 

 

Springstead Eagles

By the Numbers:

Springstead Eagles

Graduation losses: 4

Returning Lettermen: 6

Returning Starters: 3

Seniors: 5

 

By the Numbers: Weeki Wachee Hornets

Weeki Wachee Hornets

Graduation losses: 4

Returning Lettermen: 6

Returning Starters: 4

Seniors: 3

 

 

By the Numbers: Hernando Christian Academy Lions

Hernando Christian Academy Lions

Graduation losses: 3

Returning Lettermen: 6

Returning Starters: 2

Seniors: 4

2016-17 FINAL HERNANDO COUNTY GIRLS BASKETBALL HONOR ROLL STATS

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

TOP 10 SCORING

Reagan Huden                                          Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
 

RK

 

NAME

 

SCH

 

TP

 

PPG

1.

Huden, Reagan

SPG

358

18.8*

2.

Langley, Kayla

NCT

479*

18.4

3.

Corbett, Mykenna

CEN

292

15.4

4.

Phillips, Cayla

HCA

345

13.8

5.

Miller, Taylor

WW

375

12.5

5.

Vo, Sarah

SPG

274

12.5

5.

Lewis, Maddie

CEN

263

12.5

8.

Bronson, Alice

HER

266

11.1

9.

Hill, Seytia

WW

335

11.2

10.

Jackson, Milly

HCA

261

10.4

* Denotes Hernando County leader.

2017 HernandoSport.com

All-County Girls Basketball Team

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Reagan Huden
 

NAME

 

YR

 

SCHOOL

 

POSITION

Miller, Taylor

12

Weeki Wachee

Guard

Corbett, Mykenna

10

Central

Guard

Hill, Seytia

10

Weeki Wachee

Forward

Bronson, Ali

12

Hernando

Forward

Langley, Kayla

10

NCT

Center

Vasquez, Shayleese

10

Weeki Wachee

Utility

Lewis, Maddie

12

Central

Utility

Player of the Year – Reagan Huden (Springstead)

Coach of the Year – Mike Munro (Weeki Wachee)

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