Nease won St. Johns County’s only girls basketball title in 1999. Thursday night, the Panthers and five other local programs begin their quest for a title of their own.
St. Johns County has brought home scores of state titles across the sports spectrum. But the county has only produced one champion in girls basketball — Nease won the Class 5A title in 1999.
Tonight, six programs will begin their quest in the staqte playoffs to party like its 1999 and win the county’s second title.
• Nease (24-3) and Ponte Vedra (20-5) will play at home.
• Bartram Trail (17-10) will host Lee (12-12) at Creekside.
• St. Augustine, Menendez and St. Joseph will each make the 90-minute drive to Gainesville.
Tipoff for all six regional quarterfinals is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Bartram Trail won its first district title since 2015 behind freshmen Bella Weary and Dana Art, as well as senior Grace Tybor. They each scored 14 points in a 50-47 upset of Fleming Island in District 4-8A tournament final.
Bartram has won five games in a row. Three of those victories were by less than five points. One contest that was not was a 47-26 win over Lee in Jacksonville on Feb. 2.
In 2016, the Generals defeated the Bears 43-42 in a regional quarterfinal.
“Two years ago we played them literally at the exact same time in the season, right before the playoffs started," said Bartram Trail coach Jake Teuscher. "We beat them ... by about the same margin we beat them this year. We came into that game, I think we might have been overconfident. (Me), in my experience as a coach, it was my second year, I didn’t have the team as fully prepared as I should have in the second matchup with Lee.
"That experience has me refocused and now we know going in, that game two weeks ago has no bearing at all on what’s going to happen (tonight). We didn’t respect Lee as much as we should have two years ago and we’re not making that same mistake again.”
One person who will have a close eye on the Region 1-8A quarterfinal is Lee’s School Resource Officer Joe Richardson. Weary and sophomore guard Tia Singleton are expected to compete on the Bears’ track and field team that is coached by Richardson.
St. Augustine (16-9) is led by senior point guard Brianna Green. The Yellow Jackets struggled with Nease’s height in last week’s District 3-7A title game, but they have company in that regard.
“We played well,” St. Augustine coach Eric Hancock said after the game. “But, the height, you can’t do anything with the height. We have to listen to the coaches. If we play defense and rebound and be patient on offense, we can do well.”
Gainesville does not have the height Nease does. Madison Johnson (14.9 points, 7.1 rebounds), Taleya Key and Charmaine Rice (3.7 points, 4.6 rebounds), are listed as the Hurricanes' tallest players at 5-foot-9. What the Hurricanes have found is a way to win. Gainesville has won nine in a row and is undefeated at home this year.
The matchup between Green and Leaundranae Young should be key. Young is a four-year varsity player, while Green has been a three-year starter.
Nease, meanwhile, will put its 12-game winning streak on the line against Ocala Forest (20-6).
The Wildcats eliminated second-seeded Ocala Vanguard in the District 4-7A tournament semifinal, holding the Knights to 30 percent shooting (13 of 43). Though Forest lost its district title game by 15 points, it held Gainesville to just 37 percent shooting from the field.
If Forest has any hope of pulling off the upset, it will need to keep up the defensive intensity.
Nease has been held teams to less than 40 percent shooting nine times this year, but only twice in its last 13 games. Not coincidentally, the first was Nease’s last loss — a 60-56 overtime loss to nationally ranked Winter Haven on Jan. 5 — and the second was a 56-52 win over Fleming Island on Jan. 27 when the Panthers made a season-high 21 free throws.
Point guard Kiya Turner (14.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists) and post Camille Hobby (14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 blocks) are Nease’s top players, but in juniors Peyton Carter (10.7 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Mykah Eshbaugh (5.7 points, 6.4 rebounds), the Panthers have a pair of six-footers who would be the dominant presence on most high school teams.
Menendez will make its third playoff appearance in school history and second under head coach Kerri Robison. The Falcons (16-8) will face a Gainesville Eastside program making its sixth straight playoff appearance.
Robison said her team has started to feel more comfortable defensively. The dedication at that end of the court, and the emergence of 6-foot-3 junior Katie White helped the Falcons beat a pair of playoff teams in St. Augustine and Orange Park down the stretch.
Menendez stuck with Ponte Vedra for 16 minutes of last week’s District 5-6A title game. Ponte Vedra cranked it up offensively in the third quarter and breeze by the Falcons, 58-40.
Ponte Vedra will face Belleview for the second straight postseason.
“Because we made it to the state semis last year, we have a huge target on our back,” Sharks coach Jim Piggott said. “We preach that to the girls. You’re going to have to work twice as hard as you did last year to make it as far as you did last year. Everyone wants you, so you have to play that much better and that much more as a team. It’s starting to seep in.”
Ponte Vedra’s goal is to hold teams below 30 points. That didn’t happen in last week’s District 5-6A title game against Menendez. But, the Sharks held Menendez to 16 points in the second half after the Falcons scored 16 in the second quarter to temporarily take the lead.
The Sharks challenged themselves with games against Bishop Kenny, Flagler Palm Coast, Ribault and a Providence team that was a Class 4A state finalist in 2017. Ponte Vedra beat Ribault and Providence and lost to the Crusaders and Bulldogs by a total of six points.
“We have to play aggressive, close-out, keep the-ball-out-of-the-paint type of defense,” Piggott said. “We have to box out. We don’t have the tallest team, so we have to play very aggressive.”
St. Joseph heads will make its first regional playoff appearance in three years. Its last playoff win was in 2007. Standing in its way is Gainesville P.K. Yonge.
The Blue Wave (18-7) lost three of four to close the regular season. Their only win during that stretch was by 26 points over Providence in Jacksonville. St. Joseph beat Providence in the District 2-4A tournament 29-26 to secure the playoff berth.
The Flashes (13-8) are led by senior Kayla Mansell who averages 15.8 points. The 5-8 Mansell has used her plyometric ability to snag 7.4 rebounds per game. Freshman Jessamy Gaetanos averages 10.5 points on a team-high 44.4 percent shooting.
That duo and the rest of Sherri Nowatzki’s squad will have to find a way to slow down Mya McGraw. The P.K. Yonge freshman, who averages 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, will have at least five inches on every Flashes player. McGraw had double-doubles in losses against Tallahassee Lincoln and Gainesville — two teams that won district titles and are a combined 40-8.