Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
Stephanie Smith has never done less during games than she has this season.
The Braden River High girls basketball head coach is in her third season with the Pirates. In the previous two she did a lot of pacing the sidelines during games, accompanied by a lot of yelling, even though each season also featured a lot of success. The Pirates reached the Class 6A state semifinals last season before losing 80-58 to Wekiva High.
This year, however, things are different. Smith said she has spent the majority of game time sitting on the bench. She said sometimes she gets so lost watching the games that she momentarily begins watching as a fan.
Her change in demeanor has come for a few reasons, one of which is the COVID-19 pandemic. In watching the virus' path of destruction, Smith realized some things matter less than others. It's tough to place too much importance on a turnover when people around world, and in her community, are dying.
"Basketball is just a game, after all," Smith said. "I've always said that, but I don't think I ever believed it until this year."
The other reason, though, is purely basketball-related. Simply put, the Pirates are playing better than they ever have. Braden River is ranked seventh in the state by MaxPreps (all classifications) and holds an 8-3 record while having the highest strength of schedule of any team in the top-25.
The team's star, Florida State signee and two-time Gatorade Florida Girls Basketball Player of the Year O'Mariah Gordon, is having a typically strong season, averaging 23.2 points, 4.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game. She's hardly alone, though. Whereas past Pirates teams revolved around Gordon's ability to score and rack up steals, this year's team is more well-rounded.
Take the team's Jan. 5 game against Southeast High (7-2), which reached the Class 5A Final Four last season. Gordon scored just 12 points. The Pirates won by 29 points, 71-42, behind 21 points from senior Cheyenne Stubbs and 15 points from senior Ellie DiGiacomo. Stubbs, a guard with a strong driving ability and tough defense, started her career with the Pirates before leaving for Sarasota High, but transferred back this offseason. DiGiacomo transferred from Venice High before the 2019-2020 season and is the team's best 3-point shooter. Those two, plus forwards Isabella Patterson and Aaliyah Capers in the post, buoy the team's starting lineup.
"We don't see ourselves as a one-person team," DiGiacomo said. "We work so well together. We pass the ball well and once we get into the flow of the game, it's hard to stop us."
That idea will soon be put to the test. In Braden River's Jan. 9 game against Cardinal Mooney High, Gordon landed on a Cardinal Mooney player's foot in the post, suffering an ankle sprain. The injury isn't season-ending, but in the interest of caution, Gordon will be held out for a few weeks. Smith said the rest of the regular season is just a tune-up for the playoffs anyway, so she cares less about results and more about how the rest of her players are developing.
Patterson said the on-court dynamic changes when Gordon is not on the floor, but the expectations do not. Patterson said the Pirates still feel like they can compete with the best teams in the state. That is thanks to the trust the team has in one another.
"I think a lot of people underestimate us," Patterson said. "They know 'O' (Gordon) is on the team and they think that's all we are. And I understand why. 'O' is great. But the rest of us can do a lot, too, and we can't wait to show that."