The Panthers fell in the final four, but recognize that this was a special season.
It was Feb. 28, two days after the Bradenton Christian girls basketball team was eliminated in the Class 3A state semifinals, and the pain remained.
The East County members of the Panthers, seniors Jessica Jackson and Amy Van Ryn, sophomore Brighton Osborne and eighth grader Keile O'Dell, plus coach Janelle Hochstetler, sat around a conference table, swiveling in their chairs. Junior Faith Jackson, also of East County, was absent from school that day.
All said they were doing fine, at first, until Van Ryn came clean. She wasn’t fine, she said. She wasn’t going to be over the team’s 62-46 loss to Somerset Prep for a long time, especially since Somerset beat Orlando Christian 70-34 in the title game.
It’s difficult to reflect on a season after heartbreak, but Bradenton Christian knows it accomplished something special. The program reached the state semifinals for the second-consecutive year. It was the team's third year under Hochstetler, who previously coached Sarasota Christian.
Hochstetler reached two final fours with the Blazers as well and once again has brought a fire to a program. She asks a lot of her players, but gets results. The Panthers practiced six days a week for, well according to Hochstetler, it was supposed to be two hours, but the players said practice routinely lasted two and a half. They laughed at her while correcting her.
It was one of several times that the players teased their head coach. In truth, they loved the challenge of long practices.
“Past coaches didn’t push us hard enough,” Van Ryn said. “With Coach (Hochstetler), it’s not about what your line is, but how far past your line she can push you.”
This season, the Panthers made it a point to play a difficult schedule. They lost to Carrollwood Day School 73-37 in the 2017 semifinals in part, they believe, because they weren’t prepared for higher levels of competition.
This year, Bradenton Christian would be ready. It started its season with games against North Port High, which would advance to the 8A regional semifinals, and Sarasota High, which made the 8A regional quarterfinals. The Panthers were thoroughly defeated in both games, especially against Sarasota, 69-34.
But as the team became more comfortable playing superior programs, its on-court performance skyrocketed against programs its own size.
Team bonding events, like bowling, created chemistry on and off the court. At a team event called a "lock-in," the players were awake though the night playing basketball scrimmages against one another. It was one of the team’s collective favorite moments.
Characters began to assert themselves, like her fellow sophomores who Jessica Jackson said were her best friends as her voice quivered. Hochstetler called the same group a bunch of “punks,” in this case a term of endearment. They could get talkative and silly, but they could also play, as evidenced by the Panthers’ improvement.
The team won the Smoothie King Classic, the annual tournament it hosts, for the first time since 2009, beating higher-class teams like Booker High and Lemon Bay High in the process. The Panthers beat rival Saint Stephen’s Episcopal four times, the last one coming in double overtime.
The biggest sign of resilience came in a second meeting with Sarasota, which saw the Panthers rebound from the previous 35-point loss to post a 49-44 upset.
“Their commitment level is outstanding,” athletic director Zach Van Duinen said of Bradenton Christian's players. “They are the hardest-training team on campus from what I’ve seen. You can’t ask for anything more.”
The players learned how to beat a full-court press, which doomed them against Carrollwood Day, and that skill helped in the playoffs. Despite the state semifinal loss, the seniors, Jessica Jackson and Van Ryn, said they would remember both the relationships forged and this year’s battle-tested team getting as far as it did. It all combined to be the most fun year of basketball either has experienced.
Van Ryn is headed to the University of Central Florida for rowing while Jessica Jackson will play basketball at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia.
“They have provided great leadership,” Hochstetler said of the seniors. “Jessica does a lot for me in the overall scheme (of the game). Amy is more of the court leader for the kids. They have two different roles and yet the same, because they both lead. They took control because its their team, as seniors.”
With the rest of the team in-tact, the Panthers are poised to be on the prowl again next season.