The squeaking of shoes, the bouncing of balls on hardwood, the swishing of nets: they are all back.
The high school basketball season officially got under way this week with girls programs starting their regular season; the boys will start next week.
Riverview High brings back a lot of talent from a team that finished 20-2 a season ago. Coach Gerald Perry and the Rams didn't like how the season ended — with an 88-53 loss to Orlando's eventual state champion Dr. Phillips High in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 7A regional semifinals — but they did like the experience gained from the strong season.
2022 should not be much different. The Rams' third-leading scorer Caroline King and reserve Myah Hagan graduated, but leading scorers Sami Slusarek (12.9 points per game) and Amiya Lloyd (11.6 ppg) both return, along with defensive leader Krystal Montas (7.4 rebounds per game). All three are seniors. The Rams also add a defensive presence in 6-foot-2 senior Jaida Cunningham, a transfer from Booker. Cunningham's disruptions in the post helped Booker reach the Class 3A Final Four last season.
There was some rust to remove in the first half of the Rams' season-opening game against Venice High on Monday; the Rams trailed late in the second quarter before regaining a three-point advantage at the half. They didn't trail in the second half, when their defense took over the game for a 64-54 final that did not feel that close.
Perry said this first game was for experimenting as much as anything.
"We're looking for the nucleus we need," Perry said. "We have a lot of girls (that can play). We have more depth than we did last year. I'm trying to find the right mix of girls. I want to be able to throw waves at people, five girls and then another five girls."
The Rams, early-season tune-ups and all, have remained steady. Almost every other area basketball program, girls and boys, has not.
This will be my seventh year covering basketball in the area and this offseason shook up the Sarasota basketball landscape like none I have experienced. Of course, all the teams that have gone through significant changes hope they work out for the better. Me? I just hope it all leads to competitive games — and I believe it will.
Staying on the girls side, the Cardinal Mooney High Cougars have gone to the Class 3A Final Four in back to back seasons, but face perhaps their most adversity this season. Coach Rico Antonio stepped down after last season and was replaced by Marlon Williams, a basketball coaching veteran who was most recently with Florida Girls Basketball AAU. Williams will have three key members of last year's team back in senior guard Olivia Davis, sophomore guard Sy'monique Simon and sophomore forward Kali Barrett.
At Sarasota, the Sailors will be led by Coach Dave Gaulman, who came to the program from St. Stephen's. Gaulman went 44-21 in three seasons with a Final Four trip in 2019-2020. The Sailors finished 7-18 a season ago but have some talented young players such as sophomore Ava Sims (9.5 ppg), junior Madison Macdonald (9.3 ppg) and sophomore Shay Farley (8.1 ppg).
Booker High does not have a new coach. That remains Ty Bryant, who guided the Tornadoes to a 20-8 record and a Final Four appearance last year. Booker lost Jaida Cunningham to Riverview, as stated above, but return leading scorers Chariot Johnson (9.2 ppg) and Leah Dubose (8.7 ppg), who are now seniors, plus junior Jakai Peterson (7.7 ppg) and senior Kymani Freeman (7.6 ppg). That upperclassmen leadership should help the team as the season gets going and younger players fill holes left by others.
The boys basketball regular season does not begin until next week, and even then, the schedule is light because of Thanksgiving. That said, there is an early-season treat for local fans on Nov. 21 in the form of Booker hosting Riverview. The Rams won both of last season's contests between the teams, but no matter who wins, the game is always full of energy and competition. Riverview lost last year's freshman star, the 6-foot-5, five-star forward Jamier Jones, to IMG Academy, but returns a talented roster led by senior Jason Jackson, a 6-foot-4 point guard who signed with Texas Tech on Monday. They also have a new coach: Kendall Ellis, who runs the Florida Aces and Lady Aces AAU programs. He brought along his son, sophomore guard Khyre Ellis, who averaged 9.7 points per game at Port Charlotte High last season.
Booker should be paced by returning senior guard Joey Winter, one of the best outside shooters in the area, and junior Jovan Palavra, who does a little bit of everything. The Tornadoes — are you sensing a theme yet? — have a new coach as well, with Carl Williams Jr. taking that position. Williams' previous coaching stop was at the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences, but he's has also had stints with Riverview, Braden River High and the Out-of-Door Academy — those three being on the girls' side of the game.
Sarasota, too, has a new coach, and it's a familiar name for local basketball fans: BJ Ivey, who led Riverview to a state championship game appearance in 2015-2016. After coaching at Riverview for 13 seasons, Ivey spent a season with Florida Gulf Coast University as as the director of basketball operations, then spent two season with ODA before coming to the Sailors. Sarasota is looking to Ivey to turn around a program that has not had a winning record since 2013-2014; the Sailors went 5-20 last season.
The only boys program without a new coach is Cardinal Mooney High. The Cougars are likely just fine with that: In his first season at Mooney, Vince Cherry led the program to a 23-5 record and a trip to the regional quarterfinals, where the season came to a heartbreaking end with a 78-76 overtime loss to Northside Christian. The Cougars return five of their top-six scorers from a season ago, led by junior forward Dylan Higgins (14.8 ppg) and junior guard Connor Heald (12.0 ppg), and added junior forward Kevin O'Donoghue, who at 6-foot-4 averaged 16.1 ppg at ODA last season, among other reinforcements. Don't be surprised if the Cougars make an even deeper run than they did a season ago; this team is athletic and can win multiple ways.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.