Star guard O'Mariah Gordon will have more assistance in 2019-2020.
Last season, girls basketball guard O'Mariah Gordon was the steering wheel, sails and anchor of the Braden River High Pirates' ship.
Though she had assistance from first mate Julia Rodriguez, a forward, Gordon was the team's driving force. She won Florida's 2018-2019 Gatorade Player of the Year award as a result, averaging 29.7 points, 6.8 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 steals per game.
But one exceptional player was not enough in the postseason. Braden River lost 77-66 to Tampa Bay Tech in the regional finals despite 42 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block from Gordon.
This season, Gordon, now a junior, has more help.
Rodriguez is a senior, signed to Kennesaw State, and Pirates second-year coach Stephanie Smith said she has improved all-around during the offseason. She showed that improvement in the team's season-opening 76-35 home win against IMG Academy on Nov. 19, scoring 24 points and making 11 of 14 shots. Rodriguez displayed the ability to create her own shot, even when Gordon was off the floor.
Smith said Bella Patterson, a 6-foot-1 sophomore forward, has also improved her finishing ability around the rim. She had 10 points against IMG.
The Pirates have upgraded their overall talent on the roster as well. Aaliyah Capers is a 6-foot freshman forward. Smith said Capers brings much-needed size to the team, something that the Pirates lacked against Tampa Bay Tech outside of Patterson. Capers had eight points and 10 rebounds against IMG. Ellie DiGiacomo, a junior transfer from Venice High, is Capers' opposite: She stands just 5-foot-4, but the guard showed her range against IMG, hitting five of seven three-point attempts and finishing with 15 points.
Gordon is thrilled with the new additions.
"Aaliyah (Capers), she brings a lot of defense," Gordon said. "She brings energy to the team. She will get down on the ground, she will get rebounds. Ellie (DiGiacomo) is a sharpshooter. She is going to score a lot of points in our offense.
"There are a lot of things that I don't have to do now that I had to do last year. I don't have to take as many shots. There are other people who can contribute. There are people who can create their own shot. I would rather see everyone on the team get double-digit points than see myself score 30, any day. That way is so much more fun. We want to win together, not have this be a one-person show."
In the second year under Smith, things are more of the same scheme-wise. Smith said the offense will still run through Gordon, and the defense will be as opportunistic and unafraid of physicality as it was a season ago. If anything, the buy-in is greater now than it was before, because players have seen a year's worth of results.
"They are hungry," Smith said. "They are aggressive. They are competitive females. They are willing to come in and take on anybody. They love challenges. They love obstacles. They are not afraid of hard work. This is one group that I don't have to tell to work. They come to practice because they love the game. We are passionate in everything we do here. That is our goal, to always leave our hearts on the floor. If we do that, we should come out with a W."
Make no mistake, Gordon is still steering the ship, but she has a full crew now, and a gang of dangerous Pirates is a hard thing to defeat.