Yasmeen Chang (24) waits for Lehigh point guard Michelle Echeveria to make her move during Gulf Coast's 69-52 win on Tuesday night. GREGG HARDY/CSI
It’s no secret. The Gulf Coast High School girls basketball team is one of the elite programs in all of Florida. And, in a few months time, we could be using the word “special.”
The Sharks know only one speed, and if opponents can’t keep up … well, too bad for them.
“We love running the score up,” said forward Marina Hodo, part of a core group of senior standouts who make no secret about their hopes of capturing a state championship. “… The higher we go, the better we feel about ourselves (and) the more energy we have going into our next games. It all goes hand in hand.
“We always push it. There’s no mercy over here.”
Therein lies the problem for Sharks coach Mark Woodruff and his players: Because they’re so dominant (last week’s 69-52 win over Lehigh is a nail biter by Sharks standards), finding opponents who are willing to take a pounding has become increasingly difficult. Woodruff said four teams canceled games with Gulf Coast this season, and that doesn’t count Monday night’s postponed meeting with Immokalee, which may or may not be rescheduled.
Just how good are the Sharks? Led by University of Miami signee Yasmeen Chang and University of Tampa signee Mya Giusto, they breezed past a pretty solid Lehigh team (that boasts another college talent, 5-foot-11 senior Aliesha Curry) while playing without three key players: seniors Sydney Eugene and Alexa Ruane and sophomore Jordyn Robinson.
“(Scheduling) is real tough,” said Woodruff, whose team welcomes Naples High to the Shark Tank on Thursday night before hosting seven teams Saturday in the Shark Showdown (Gulf Coast will play Brooks DeBartolo in the nightcap). “Lehigh’s a very good team, and I’m very glad we got to play them. There’s them, there’s Fort Myers, there’s us, and it’s just hard to find good, quality games. That’s why I was very thankful for tonight.
“(Facing Curry) gave our bigs a chance to really get out and compete, and I think they did really well. (Freshman forward) Reese (Tremitiere) handled herself great — she had a couple blocks on Aliesha (and) a ton of rebounds. Marina played really well inside; and even (senior forward) Bess (Vernau) came in off the bench and was real physical and gave us some good, quality minutes.”
To make up for the scheduling shortfall, Gulf Coast will test itself at four holiday events (each of them attracting top-level teams).
First, the Sharks will travel to Daytona Beach for the All-Out Shootout at Spruce Creek on Dec. 8. They’ll play a Seffner Christian team that reached the Class 4A regional finals last season.
Then it’s a return trip to Washington D.C. for the She Got Game Classic, held Dec. 14-15. Gulf Coast will play a couple of state tournament runner-ups: Newark (N.J.) Tech and Georgetown (D.C.) Visitation Prep.
After a 12-day Christmas break, the Sharks will host the three-day Naples Holiday Shootout, featuring top teams from around Florida and five other states. Gulf Coast, which won last year’s event, will open against Sacred Heart (Ky.) on Dec. 27.
Once they ring in the new year, the Sharks will head to Miami on Jan. 5 for another appearance in the SUTS Classic, where they’ll play defending 6A champ American Heritage. Two years ago, Gulf Coast lost to three-time defending state champ Winter Haven (which later denied the Sharks in the state semifinals); and last year, the Sharks were beaten by Miami Country Day (which has won five straight state titles).
“You want to load up the schedule as much as you can,” Woodruff said. “I think we’ve done that the last couple years with the tournaments we travel to play in. … That’s the level we want to get to, and the only way to get there is to play those teams and start beating them.”
The injury bug has been more of a snakebite for Gulf Coast the last two seasons.
Conceivably, the Sharks could already have a state championship trophy in their possession had it not been for a couple of devastating injuries. Giusto suffered a torn ACL at the start of the 2017 state semifinal against Winter Haven; and last year, Jordan Cloutier (who now plays for Stetson University) suffered a concussion and missed much of Gulf Coast’s regional finals loss to Tampa Bay Tech.
Woodruff said Eugene could be back this week and that Robinson is not far behind — she could be back in a week or so. Ruane, meanwhile, is looking at a return sometime around Christmas, Woodruff said.
Hodo can’t wait to get the band completely back together.
“We all get along so well,” said Hodo, another Sharks college signee (she’ll play for Maryville College in Tennessee). “We’re together all day, every day. We’re each other’s only friends at this point in time. … Our team chemistry is through the roof.”
She added: “When we’re full force, we’re going to be unstoppable.”
Four games will be played Saturday at Gulf Coast High School: Charlotte vs. Lehigh at 2 p.m.; Dunbar vs. Archbishop McCarthy at 4 p.m.; Fort Myers vs. DME Academy at 5:30 p.m.; and Brooks DeBartolo vs. Gulf Coast at 7 p.m.
(By the way, Gulf Coast will get another stiff test when it travels to Fort Myers on Jan. 10 to take on the Green Wave, who have won three straight state titles.)
Woodruff is looking forward to the Sharks’ date with Brooks DeBartolo, a Class 5A regional semifinalist last year who filled in when Tampa Catholic withdrew from the field.
“It should be an early test,” said Woodruff, who anticipates to have Eugene — the Sharks’ top defender — back in the lineup Saturday. “Everbody gets a good, quality opponent.”
Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org.