Celtics senior Haven Craft, left, and St. John Neumann coach Sarah McFee, right, talk strategy during Thursday's regional quarterfinal home win over Community School of Naples. GREGG HARDY/CSI
Even on a night when Haven Craft was not at her best, her coach, Sarah McFee, was effusive in her praise of the St. John Neumann senior.
Craft’s arrival last year from Palmetto Ridge High School has paved the way for a girls basketball resurgence at Neumann, which will host its third regional playoff game in two seasons Tuesday night.
McFee said Craft — who was held to five points in the Celtics’ 39-26 regional quarterfinal win over Community School of Naples on Thursday — has helped to uphold the saying that guides her program: “Tradition never graduates.”
“Haven’s a big part of that,” said McFee, whose team (17-7) will play North Port’s Imagine School (13-11) in Tuesday’s Class 3A regional semifinal — a rematch of the Sharks’ 59-55 home win back on Nov. 26. “She’s a special kid. When she transferred here, she made us true gamers. She just elevated our potential because she has that potential in her. She can come out and do whatever she wants, when she wants to; and because of that, I think she inspired my other girls to reach for that, to see what it’s like to be a true student of the game and be a true athlete.
“She has that competitive edge that some girls don’t always have. … I could not be more proud. I love that kid.”
Craft, the Celtics’ leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, said she could not have made a better decision than to enroll at Neumann. She only wished she could have started her high school years there.
“Everything here is just better all around,” Craft said Thursday night as teammates, classmates and family celebrated the Celtics’ first regional semis berth since 2016. “Coming here was definitely a really big thing for me. This is like family — Celtic family. Lady Celtics (basketball) is amazing to me; they mean everything.”
Last week, on this website, a reference was made to the Celtics’ Big Three — a moniker given to Neumann’s top three scorers: Craft, junior Natalie Bergstrom (13.7 ppg) and sophomore Leah Martin-Gonzales (13.2 ppg).
Craft said it’s much more than a Big Three at Neumann.
“We all just rely on each other,” she said. “… Everything comes as a team. All of our baskets come as a team. We are a team. It’s not just a one-man sport. It’s not just the Big Three, either; it’s all five of us. All five of us put in work. Our bench puts in work. Our fans put in work. Our parents, our coach … our coach is amazing.”
Yes, Craft was held nine points below her season average Thursday — credit the Seahawks; aside from last week’s district title game, they’ve had success defending her the past two seasons — but she continued to serve as Neumann’s emotional leader. She clearly has a bond with the SJN fans, who packed the home bleachers for the third straight game against Community School, often agitating the Seahawks.
“They’re the reason why we win,” Craft said of the Celtic faithful. “They push us. They bring the energy to the court. We just push the energy for them, and we just all play our hardest.”
Martin-Gonzales scored a game-high 16 points as she led the Celtics on both ends of the floor Thursday. It was in stark contrast to the district finals, when Martin-Gonzales scored six points as she focused solely on defending Seahawks star freshman Kiaraly Cabrera. (After lighting up Neumann for 23 points in CSN’s 43-40 win on Jan. 31, Cabrera was limited to 14 and 11 points in the last two meetings, respectively).
“Going into (Thursday’s) game, I didn’t expect to score that much,” Martin-Gonzales said. “Kiaraly is an amazing player. I really had to work hard on defense, and that’s what I did. I trusted my team. I knew that we would score our points. I just had to (play) lockdown defense.”
“Tonight, she really pulled through for us,” Craft said of Martin-Gonzales.
We’ll see if McFee opts to put Martin-Gonzales on Imagine School’s top player, senior Katie Klein, who’s averaging 19.6 points per game.
Klein had 14 points in that earlier meeting with Neumann, which saw three other Sharks reach double figures in scoring. Craft had 28 points, including four 3-pointers, while Bergstrom had 14. The Celtics fell behind 17-7 after the first quarter and trailed 36-22 at halftime.
Craft and Martin-Gonzales both feel the Celtics can go even further in the playoffs. Neumann hasn’t been to a regional final since 2008 when it advanced to the state’s Final Four.
“I think that we can win regionals, honestly,” Craft said. “… I think we can make it pretty far.”
Said Martin-Gonzales: “Our goal is to go as far as we can … but yeah, I think we can go far.”
While McFee prefers the typical one-game-at-a-time coaches mantra, she explained what lies behind the “tradition never graduates” state of mind. It’s about her players thinking they can win a state championship every year, even if it proves elusive.
“This scrappy group has that (mindset),” McFee said. “They have that true feeling that they can go up against any player they see. They are students of the game. They listen. They lock in. I trust them wholeheartedly, and I think that’s a big thing this year — there’s a lot of trust.”
Coach Rich Crosby said it was “one of those nights” after Community School’s season-ending loss to Neumann, but it appears better days are ahead for the Seahawks.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Crosby, whose roster boasts exactly zero seniors and just three juniors — talented newcomer Brianne Johanson and captains Olivia Weiss and Kathleen Donahue.
Despite getting “decent looks” on offense Thursday, Crosby said, “We couldn’t put the ball in the basket tonight.”
He did take some solace in his team’s defensive performance.
“To hold them to 39 points, defensively, is a good effort with the three scorers they can put on the court.”
Crosby said the three games against the Celtics — and the pressure-packed environment they played in — will only help his program, which is in its third season after failing to take the floor for the 2016-17 season.
“That’s how you get experience,” Crosby said. “We’re going to learn from this, get better from it (and) use it.”
Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org.