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Booker girls basketball wants a repeat performance

The Tornadoes have a different look in 2022-2023, but a return to the Final Four is the goal.

Booker's Annette Castro dives for a loose ball against Lake Placid High.
Booker's Annette Castro dives for a loose ball against Lake Placid High.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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With about two minutes to go in Booker High's girls basketball game against Lake Placid High on Tuesday, Tornadoes coach Ty Bryant was getting on his team about free throws after a few misses. 

"Come on, they're free!" Bryant said, a look of bewilderment. 

The free throws came with Booker (13-5) leading the Dragons (5-6) by 46 points. It didn't matter to Bryant, though. He was going to coach his team down the stretch as if the game was tied. 

The scene was indicative of how Booker has regained its edge since Bryant took over in 2020. There's no such thing as good enough, as high school players can always get better — and at a certain point, they will likely need to be, especially if the Tornadoes want to accomplish their goals. 

Booker finished 20-8 last season and went on a postseason run that took the Tornadoes to the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 4A Final Four. The run ended there, in a matchup with eventual state champion Lake Highland Prep. Booker lost 73-51 to the Highlanders. The Final Four loss was disappointing, but considering Booker lost 77-40 to Cocoa High in the regional quarterfinals the season previous, it represented major postseason progress. 

Booker's Annette Castro hits an inside shot against Lake Placid High.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Getting back to the state semifinals this season will be its own type of challenge. The Tornadoes have six seniors, but the rest of the team is fairly inexperienced. Bryant has 12 Booker players averaging at least 10 minutes per game; despite the inexperience, the talent runs deep, and Bryant wants to unlock it. But that's not all on his shoulders. 

"Last year's team wasn't as talented, but they had a maturity," Bryant said. "They controlled the locker room and they had a little bit more control on the court. I'm a firm believer that it's not the coach that leads a good team, it's the players. We're struggling a little bit with that right now, but we're getting there." 

The program's player leadership aside, this year's Tornadoes spread their stats in a similar fashion as last year's team. Only one player, senior Chariot Johnson, averages double-digit points per game (11.6), but five players average 6.8 points per game or more. Likewise, five players average four or more rebounds per game, and a sixth — junior Cheyla Zastrow — averages 3.9 rebounds per game. Everything from scoring to hitting the glass is dictated on game flow and who is in the right position at the right time. Bryant said he can put together a game of five-on-five in practice that is competitive. On most teams, a game like that will be lopsided, as the team's top talent will outweigh its depth players. But that's not the case on Booker, and the competitive nature of practices works to elevate everyone's game. 

Against Lake Placid on Tuesday, the person often in the right spot was senior guard Sariah Bradley, who finished with eight points, six rebounds, three steals and two assists, doing a little bit of everything to help her team win. Bradley said the outcome was indicative of how the team wants to win every game. Execute on offense and play "Booker basketball" on defense — meaning tight, relentless pressure — and they'll be fine, Bradley said.

Booker Coach Ty Bryant said his team needs to work on offensive execution.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Her coach agreed with her on one point, but he still wants to see more. 

"We can defend anybody," Bryant said. "That is a fact. We can defend. We have to become better offensively. If there's something that is going to hurt us, it's offense. We are doing a better job of taking care of the basketball. Our turnovers are down. But we still need to get better at the simple things."

Simple things like making free throws when presented with them, or capitalizing on second-chance opportunities. It's why Bryant was still taking the opportunity to coach his players at the end of an eventual 58-12 win. Every second on the court is a chance to get better, no matter the opponent or game situation. 

Booker had plenty of fun Tuesday night, too. After terrorizing Dragons players on defense and causing turnover after turnover, leading to a deluge of points in transition, it was clear by halftime which team would win. The Tornadoes took the opportunity to play its reserve players for much of the running clock-aided second half, getting them experience, and Bryant spent much of the fourth quarter laughing on the sideline — except when it came to the details. 

Booker will face tougher opponents, including a home rematch with Cardinal Mooney High (11-3) on Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Booker lost the first game between the two teams 60-46 on Dec. 20. Mooney is a Class 3A team (ranked No. 3 in the class by MaxPreps as of Jan. 11), so another loss would not be indicative of Booker's postseason prospects, but a win or a closer game would show how much the Tornadoes have grown over the last several weeks. 



Ryan Kohn

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.

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