Last season ended with lots of tears for Oxbridge Academy.
The ThunderWolves, a young team with only one senior, went to Lakeland for the state playoffs, took a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter of the Class 5A state semifinal - and blew it. Oxbridge went scoreless for the entire final quarter, then lost the game in overtime.
After a game like that, there are two options: You can try to move past it, or you can use it for motivation. The ThunderWolves chose the latter.
“How long do I think it took to get over that?” junior guard Alexa Zaph said. “It’s still going on right now. We’re still playing because of that game, we’re practicing because of that game. We work hard, and every drop of sweat that we have is because of that game. We’re really grinding for that game, and we want to get there again.”
Coach Tracy Wolfe, entering her third year at Oxbridge, knows she can use that game to get a rise out of her players and push them to their limits.
“They took it personally,” she said. “I can throw stats from that game at them. I can talk about our fourth quarter, where we didn’t even score a basket, and I can throw it at them. They take it the right way.
“I think I know them well enough that I can keep throwing it in their face, and they’re going to get angry and they’re going to step it up.”
Oxbridge enters the 2017-18 season, which begins today across the state, with almost the entire same roster as last year’s state semifinalist team.
“I believe we have a state-championship team,” forward Kaylon Smith said. “I believe we had one last year, but just came up a little bit short. … The girls feel it, the coaches feel it, I feel it. We’re going to defy the odds this year.”
Zaph, a Post first-team All-Area pick, and Aaliyah Stanley, also a first-team selection, anchor the backcourt. As sophomores, the two combined for 30.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 5.7 steals per game.
Smith, a second-team All-Area pick as a sophomore, rules the front court. She had 8.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season. She’s the team captain, and she thinks the ThunderWolves mesh so well it will be hard for opposing teams to do much against them.
“It’s a sisterhood, really,” she said. “We’ve grown together over the years. I think our bond is stronger than ever. We’re mature, and the chemistry on the court is just amazing. We see reads that other teams are not going to be able to see because they haven’t been together as long and grown together like we have.”
And all those players have gotten a taste of playing for a state championship. Now they want more.
“In a way, I feel it was a blessing for us,” Wolfe said. “They worked that much harder because of it. Every practice, the intensity level is up here. It’s really driven them.
“They won’t settle for anything less than a state championship this year. If we don’t get one, I think it will be a big disappointment.”
Teams to watch
Benjamin - The Buccaneers could make a good run in the playoffs (if they don’t run into nationally ranked Miami Country Day), as they bring back star Da’Mya Preston as well as key players Anise Williams and Emma Lazsewski.
Boca Raton - The Bobcats are coming off the program’s first-ever state championship, but they lost the team’s foundation — last year’s Large Schools Players of the Year, Rachel Levy and Grace Marko. Coach Nhu Nguyen will have to get a lot out of returning starters Hannah Pratt and Audrey Ramsey as last year’s role players, such as Grace Alfieri and Kelsi Mingo, step into larger roles.
Cardinal Newman - The Crusaders have now graduated the last two Small Schools Players of the Year, Tytionia Adderly and Milan Morris. It may be time for a rebuild in West Palm Beach, but Newman is always dangerous.
Grandview Prep - Another team coming off a state championship, the Pride return top scorer and Class 2A Player of the Year Megan Rampersad, talented sophomore Danielle Montelbano and forward Scarlett Anosier.
John I. Leonard - Part of a deep District 9-9A, the Lancers graduated key players Leticia Luna (first-team All-Area) and Brooke Steinbauer (second team). Leonard does return star forward Aja Gregg, who had a double-double in 20 of 25 games last year, but will rely largely on freshmen.
Oxbridge Academy - The ThunderWolves suffered a crushing defeat in the state semifinals last season, but they have a chance to redeem themselves. Nearly the entire roster returns, led by star guards Aaliyah Stanley and Alexa Zaph.
Palm Beach Gardens - The Gators, reigning District 9-9A champions, return first-team All-Area pick Kiera Brown and sophomore Kyandra Poitier, who averaged 10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Palm Beach Lakes - Led by Ra’shara Simmons, a lot is expected of the Rams this year after winning their district but falling to Fort Lauderdale in the regional semis.
Santaluces - With twin sisters Brittney and Whitney Howell-Wright (a Seton Hall signee) leading the way, the Chiefs hope to challenge Boca Raton for the District 10-9A title.
Wellington - The Wolverines, featuring Sydney Jones, have a strong starting five that they’re hoping takes the district crown away from Palm Beach Gardens.
Players to watch
Kiera Brown, Palm Beach Gardens, Jr., Guard/Forward - Brown was a first-team All-Area pick her first two seasons with the Gators and shows no signs of slowing down. She averaged 11.2 points and 7.5 rebounds last year.
Haley Gantt, King’s Academy, Sr., Forward - A first-team All-Area selection as a junior, Gantt averaged a double-double last year, with 14.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. She also averaged 4.3 blocks per game.
Sydney Jones, Wellington, Sr., Guard - Jones was a first-team All-Area pick last year after averaging a double-double — 17 points and 10 rebounds — as a junior.
Hannah Pratt, Boca Raton, Sr., Forward - After dabbling in football in the fall, the Columbia commit returns to her sport of choice. She had 8.3 points and six rebounds per game as a junior.
Da’Mya Preston, Benjamin, Sr., Forward - A three-time first-team All-Area selection, Preston enters her senior season after averaging 16 points and seven rebounds last year.
Megan Rampersad, Grandview Prep, Sr., Guard - Rampersad, a first-team All-Area pick last year, averaged 18.5 points and three assists per game while helping lead the Pride to the Class 2A state title.
Audrey Ramsey, Boca Raton, Jr., Guard - Ramsey won the Class 9A state title with a buzzer beater in the spring, and she returns with a more prominent role now that seniors Rachel Levy and Grace Marko have graduated.
Ra’shara Simmons, Palm Beach Lakes, Jr., Guard - Simmons burst onto the scene as a sophomore, scoring 17 points, and racking up 7.2 rebounds and 5.4 steals per game.
Aaliyah Stanley, Oxbridge Academy, Jr., Guard - Stanley paced the state semifinalists with 16.4 points per game while adding 3.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3 steals per game.
Alexa Zaph, Oxbridge Academy, Jr., Guard - The Florida Atlantic commit had 14.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game as a sophomore.