Junior Baylee Hooker goes up for a shot during the game at Gaither on Dec. 1. Photo Courtesy of the Lutz News

The Steinbrenner girls basketball team has spent the last two seasons clawing its way up the ladder to become a competitive program.

From finishing one game under .500 during its first season in 2009-10 to capturing its first winning record with a 15-7 record last year, the squad had been focused on gaining respect. Now in Year 3, the talk of a district championship is starting to brew.

Warriors junior guard Baylee Hooker goes up for a jump ball against Gaither.

“I think with the new district alignment, we will have a very good opportunity to win the district title,” said Warriors coach J.R. Allen, the only coach in program history.

The new alignment matches Steinbrenner (3-1) against Freedom (5-0), Gaither (1-6), Wiregrass Ranch (5-2) and Chamberlain (3-2) in Class 7A-District 9.

Allen said his team is in good position for a title because numerous district opponents lost key players to graduation last year.

“Three of the teams that are in our district were hit hard by graduation and therefore will have to rely on some unproven players to step in and represent their teams,” Allen said.

Freedom, which went 20-6 and won a district championship last year, lost its top-two scorers to graduation.

Point guard Kaitlynn Pacholke posted 15.3 points, 8.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 steals per game in 2010-11. She is currently playing at Jacksonville State University on a basketball scholarship. Freedom also lost forward/center Lindsay Taggart, who put up 14.1 points, 8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game last season.

Gaither also lost its top-two scorers from the 2010-11 squad that went 6-14. Departing were center/forward Aja Osborne and her 12.3 points, 17.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per contest, and guard Ayanna Fullwood’s 9.1 points, 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 3.5 steals.

Wiregrass Ranch is coming off the rockiest offseason in the program’s six-year history. It was hit with Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) violations that included recruiting point guard Briahanna Jackson, who has since graduated from Freedom.

Greg Finkel, who had been the only coach in program history, resigned after the FHSAA found the Bulls guilty of 10 violations. John Gant was named Wiregrass Ranch’s new leader in August.

The Bulls, who finished 14-12 last year, were unable to make the postseason for the first time in three seasons and must replace three of their top four scorers. Guard Jeileen Mas, who is playing at East Wyoming College on a basketball scholarship, averaged 13.5 points last season. Fellow guard Lauren Gould and center/forward Kayla Deloach put up 9.2 and 10 points per game, respectively, a year ago.

Wiregrass Ranch does return leading scorer Kelly McCaffrey, a senior forward, and her 15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.7 steals and 2.9 assists per game from the 2010-11 campaign.

Steinbrenner is fortunate enough to return every one of its players.

“We have the great luxury of returning our entire varsity team for the third year in a row, so we have great experience and veteran leadership across the board in all positions,” Allen said.

The team returns junior guards Baylee Hooker, who averaged 11.8 points per game last season; and Justice Thigpen, who recorded 4.4 rebounds per game before an injury ended her 2010-11 campaign. Also back is senior guard Alexis Wright and senior forward/center Rebecca Cohen, who averaged 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, respectively.

Hooker says while the competition will be tougher than in years past, the squad has looked strong to open the season and is focused on reaching its goals.

“Our offseason was really crucial for us this summer,” Hooker said. She then added, “We all set personal goals and pushed ourselves to reach them. We even dedicated ourselves to (early morning) conditioning three days a week for five weeks. Practices are more intense and coach is really pushing each one of us to be the best we can be.”

The Warriors’ attention is centered on a district title, but Allen said the talent level and consistency gives them a shot of making a run to the state final four.

“I feel very strongly that we will not only win the district title this year, but also are in a great position to make a deep run,” Allen said. “We have great team speed, good depth off the bench, good size and a bit of a swagger that has been brought about due to knowing that all the hours of preparation and sacrifice are going to pay off for us.”

Steinbrenner got its first district win at Gaither on Dec. 1, a 68-17 victory. The Warriors traveled to Blake on Monday, Dec. 5, but results were not available by press time. The squad hosts Wiregrass Ranch on Tuesday, Dec. 6 before traveling to Hillsborough on Thursday, Dec. 8. Both games start at 8 p.m.

Jeff Odom / Sports Editor

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