Keri Jewett, Kiara Desmours and Regine Cooper understood the expectations placed on their shoulders before setting foot in the halls of Dunbar High.
But as freshmen perhaps they were too young to understand the impact their winning a girls basketball state title in 2012 had on the community.
Trips to Lakeland for the state final four the next two years changed all of that.
This senior class has built a tradition where winning is the only option. When it takes its final bow at the Lakeland Center over the next few days the only fitting end would be the curtain call coming with state championship hardware in hand.
“As we move forward, we see that that this city, this town really prides itself on us going to Lakeland,” said Desamours, whose team will face West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman in one semfinal at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. “It’s not just about us. We’re trying to make everybody proud.”
That realization has made the previous two seasons, during which the Tigers were unquestionably one of the two best teams in the classification and lost a total of five games, awful tough.
One loss came in the 2013 semifinals and one came in last year’s final. Both at the hands of Jacksonville Ribault, who will more than likely be waiting for Dunbar again in the final Wednesday.
“Once you get that taste of a state championship, it’s in their mouths and in their minds,” Tigers coach Dwayne Donnell said. “It’s tough to not get it. Hopefully, in 10 years they can look back on this and really appreciate this. Lee County has never seen anything like this in girls basketball and it’s going to be a while before they see it again.”
A rematch with Ribault has been the only thing the team has been working for since last summer. Donnell scheduled a competitive out-of-area schedule, which included Ribault, and the players have taken care of their business, winning games by an average of 53 points.
Desmours and Jewett have been playing at an All-American level the whole season. The Tigers struggled midway through season with playing team basketball, but as the postseason has progressed they’ve improved on creating shots by running their offense rather just relying on points off turnovers.
“You have to want to eat for the whole team. If someone else on the team isn’t eating, you have to eat for them,” Cooper said. “Either we all eat or we all starve.”
The trip to Lakeland is nothing new. However, Donnell said losses to Ribault, Little Rock (Ark.) Central, Alpharetta (Ga.) St. Francis and Miami Country Day were invaluable experiences in playing on the biggest of stages.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Donnell said. “They know what it feels like to be in a high-pressure, high intensity game. They have to face adversity every possession. They have to know the importance of valuing each possession.”
Dunbar’s work on the defensive glass will also be crucial to its success. In losses to Ribault in last year’s final and during this regular season, the Tigers were eaten alive by second-chance opportunities.
They’ll face a similar test in Newman junior Tytionia Adderly, who is averaging 11.5 rebounds per game.
“If we don’t box out and protect our glass, we’re going home,” Donnell said. “As basic as it sounds, we have to make sure we have bodies on people and not just rely on our athleticism.”
At this point, especially for Jewett, Desamours and Cooper, there is no margin for error.
IF YOU GO
Who: FHSAA Class 4A girls basketball finals
Where: The Lakeland Center in Lakeland
When: Tuesday and Wednesday
Tuesday’s semifinals: Jacksonville Ribault vs. Orlando Lake Highland Prep, 7 p.m.; Dunbar vs. West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman, 8:30 p.m.
Wednesday’s final: 8:05 p.m.
Note: Tickets are $10 per session. Parking is $8.
On Air: Broadcast on WYME 91.9 FM