The ThunderWolves have been here before.
A year ago, Oxbridge Academy beat Tampa Catholic to clinch the team’s berth in the Class 5A state semifinals — at the time, the program’s first trip to Lakeland. The ThunderWolves faced off against Orlando-Jones, built a big lead going into the fourth quarter, and then they lost it. Oxbridge failed to score in the fourth quarter and most of overtime, allowing Jones to come back, win - and eventually go on to capture the state title.
“When we got to Lakeland last year, I think the stage was a little bit too big for us,” coach Tracy Wolfe said.
But now they are back. Oxbridge beat Tampa Catholic in the regional finals again, and the ThunderWolves are determined not to let this opportunity get away.
“This year, they’ve been there, they’re a year older, they’re upperclassmen now, and they’re just really focused on the task at hand,” Wolfe said. “So it’s not so much of the joy of getting to Lakeland. Now, it’s that they have a job to do when they get there.”
That job starts Wednesday at 4 p.m., when Oxbridge (25-5) plays Fort Lauderdale-Cardinal Gibbons (22-6) in the semifinals. All season, the memory of last year’s stunning defeat will be in the back of their minds.
“Because of what happened last year, we’ve just been so driven this year,” Wolfe said. “It’s just been a different feel all year, that I almost go in with more confidence this year. … I feel that we’re prepared as we can possibly be, and our success is going to be there because of that.”
Wolfe has plenty of reasons to be confident. Her team’s core of juniors, highlighted by forward Kaylon Smith (11.3 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game) and guards Aaliyah Stanley (13.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.9 assists per game) and Alexa Zaph (13.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2 APG), have excelled all season. With a balanced offense, no one has put up staggering point totals, but they’re all averaging double-digit points.
Alongside those three are junior guard Haley Howarth (8.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG) and sophomore forward Nashani Gilbert-Taylor (7.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG). The ThunderWolves’ two remaining starters haven’t always put up the point totals of the other three, but they’ve been key contributors, especially on defense.
“Defensively, there’s no one better than those two,” Wolfe said. “We take the pressure off of them, offensively, in that their job is to go out and play great defense.”
All of those players were on the team last year and experienced the devastating loss. But Wolfe thinks her team hasn’t just drawn motivation from last season, but they’ve grown as a team, too. In the regional finals against Tampa Catholic, the ThunderWolves found themselves in another scoring drought. This one, though, would not end their season.
“We called a timeout, and we brought it back to that message of how are we going to respond?” Wolfe said. “We have to grow from this. It’s just our constant message of how are we going to get better? How are we going to grow from this?
“We did this last year, but now we have to constantly fix it where last year we weren’t able to do that.”