Both girls basketball teams from Gateway (Class 5A) and St. Cloud (7A) made deep runs in the FHSAA Playoffs last season – each falling one game short of Final Four appearances as they lost in their respective regional finals.
And although the Panthers were hit harder by graduation last May then the Bulldogs were, both teams have high hopes to take their seasons at least one step further as the 2022-23 season began this past week.
St. Cloud, under head coach Chad Ansbaugh, was the biggest surprise last season. Despite graduating the majority of his starters – including Division-1 recruit Eno Inyang – the sophomore dominated squad put together a 20-win season. The Lady Bulldogs won an OBC Championship, took a district crown and made it all the way to the regional finals before they were eliminated by eventual state runner-up Wekiva, 52-32.
That sophomore dominated St. Cloud team is now a year older and a year more experienced and according to Ansbaugh hungry to prove last year’s outstanding season was not a fluke. “This is a unique group of players,” Ansbaugh said. “We won a lot of close games last year and for that reason alone, they know they have to reason to be overconfident. We have a strong-minded group who basically want to top last year’s achievements and are willing to put in the work to get there.”
Ansbaugh is calling this year’s team perhaps his most-talented ever.
Emily Lockey (15.0 points-per-game) returns as St. Cloud’s leading scorer, but balance will be the key as fellow sophomores Danzy Mantilla (9.5 ppg), Haley Collins (7.1 ppg) and Jaelyn Bonilla (6.4 ppg) are all vital parts of St. Cloud’s offense. Sophomore Savannah Kroener earned a spot on the varsity last year and averaged 3.1 points per game in limited playing time. Ansbaugh calls her the “the player that has shown the most improvement” in the off-season and she is expected to play a much bigger role this season. Look for Vanessa Vohs, Kennedi Johnson, Danni Mann and Arianna Viera to see significant playing time; while promising newcomers Karyna Rivera and Sanaa Charles could figure into the rotation.
St. Cloud got off to a solid start with a big 63-50 win road win over Lake Gibson, a regional quarterfinalist from a year ago.
Equally optimistic this season is Justin Marino of the Gateway Panthers. His team came a mere basket away from making the Final Four last season when the Panthers (22-8) fell to Bishop Moore in the Regional Finals.
Although graduated significant contributors Nerishlyan Moreau (9.4 ppg) and Orange Belt Conference Athlete of the Year Paige Alise (4.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg); they return top guns Vanessa Diaz (17.0 ppg) and Malayna Stephenson (14.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
Newcomers will also play an important role in the Panthers 2022-23 campaign. Coach Justin Marino’s daughter Alyssa Marino and Ivanna Rivera, are both freshman who led Neptune Middle School to a county championship last year and are projected starters at point guard and forward. Alyssa is a tremendous shooter who averaged more 20 points a game in summer league play this year as Gateway recorded a 26-4 record and beat some outstanding teams; while Rivera will provide a strong presence on both ends of the court.
The Panthers are off to a great start this season with a 70-18 win over Osceola and a 38-35 win over Winter Springs.
Looking at the rest of the county, Poinciana went 9-9 last season. With the departure of senior team leaders and top scorers Ivanis Pimental (10.3 ppg) and Samara Calso (9.0 ppg); head coach Eva Johnson will rely on her daughter Eva to provide the senior leadership for this season. The Eagles got off to a 1-1 start in Week 1, defeating Liberty (50-25) but dropping a 43-27 decision to Davenport.
Tohopekaliga returns Sofia Delgado (Jr., 8.8 ppg) and Makenna Day (So., 10.1 ppg) and will look for additional help from Angela Alvarado (Fr.) and Kenya Allen (Fr.) as coach Jen Farrell hopes to continue to build off the momentum from last year’s 9-9 team – the first non-losing season in the school’s five-year history. Farrell’s charges opened the season with a 43-40 win over Celebration.
After a few years of waning interest in the sport at Harmony, Paul Strauch said he was optimistic after more than 25 athletes tried out for varsity this year. Strauch’s top returning scorer off of last year’s 3-17 team is Kaitlyn Davis (Sr., 7.8 ppg); but he added that newcomers Ellah Husbands (Fr.) and Faith Wener (Jr.) have looked promising in the preseason. “Our goal is to improve from game-to-game and week-to-week,” Strauch said. “We only beat one county opponent last year and as the season progresses, I hope we are playing at a level where we are no longer looked at as an easy win.”
Harmony has almost matched last year’s win total for the season, getting off to a 2-0 start with victories over Cocoa Beach (58-22) and Altamonte Christian (45-30).
Osceola Coach Roshawna Sippio continues her rebuilding process in her second year at the helm. Returning letter winners include Aysia Stokes (Sr.), Nicole Caraballo (Sr.), and Arriana Rodriguez (So.); while newcomers Zebrielle Canaday (Fr.) and Kayden Gause (Fr.) should give the Lady Kowboys a boost “Our program was at a low-point at the beginning of last year but we have started the process of building it back,” Sippio said.
The Lady Kowboys are 1-2 on the season with a win over Davenport (42-35) and a narrow loss over Windermere Prep (38-31) to go with the Gateway loss.
A lack of depth was a major problem for Liberty last season, as the team went 2-13. Hailey Dantzler (9.0 ppg) and India Smith (9.0 ppg) have been the top performers for Coach Kennesshia Williams’ team in the early going as the Chargers have dropped decisions to Poinciana and Celebration.
Bryan Gauger has taken over the head coaching reigns at Celebration. His team is off to a 1-1 start with a win over Liberty (33-23) to go with the Tohopekaliga setback. Returning players for the Storm Lenna Bolejack, Alma Santana, Valeria Martinez, and Diana Houmaidan. Bolejack was the leading returning scorer last season for the Storm at 6.1 ppg; while Martinez was at 3.7 ppg.