As the Fort Myers girls basketball team finished practice Tuesday with a few laps around the court, a familiar refrain came across their lips.
Hail Alma Mater
Hats off to you…
Since the middle of January, when Jimmy Roberts was hired to take over for Ron Riis — who resigned on the 14th — the 1981 graduate of Fort Myers has been making the Green Wave sing the alma mater almost every day, as a reminder for why they’re playing this season: Not for you, but for us.
The theme has stuck. The Green Wave has won eight out of its last nine games and heads into the State 7A semifinals against Palm Beach Lakes (25-2) on Thursday at The Lakeland Center for the first time since last appearing in 1984.
“I wanted their focus off the individual stuff,” Roberts said. “I wanted their focus on what they needed to accomplish as a team.”
That feeling should serve the Green Wave well as they set to face the Rams, who score 66 points per game while giving up just a little over 42.
In some respects, the game may mirror the challenge Fort Myers faced against Miami Country Day on Jan. 9, when the Green Wave fell 90-59 to a team loaded with Division I recruits.
“They play aggressive, upbeat basketball,” Roberts said of Palm Beach Lakes. “They’re going to stay on you. They’re senior laden and here we are, mostly freshmen and sophomores.”
But Fort Myers has found a knack for getting under the skin of its opponents lately, too, giving up just 40 points per game over its last four games.
In its win on Saturday against Lakewood Ranch, the team accumulated 10 steals while forcing the Mustangs into countless contested shots.
“Our dynamic has gotten a lot better,” senior guard Kylie Flynn said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re working better as a team and we’re more comfortable with each other.”
Defense has played a big part in that resurgence. Since that loss to Miami Country Day, the Green Wave are giving up just 42 points per game — which included an 11-point loss to Dunbar, which fell 68-62 in overtime to Orlando Lake Highland Prep in the Class 4A championship game Wednesday night.
Mostly, players say, that’s come as a result of detailed preparation. After watching film and scouting opponents, Roberts offers specific roles for the Green Wave.
Against Lakewood Ranch, that meant fronting the post on 6-foot-3 LaDazhia Williams between three defenders — Autumn Giles, Larissa Roker and Cameron Boland — while guards picked holes on defense and microwaved turnovers into instant offense.
“He gives us the tools,” sophomore guard Jarya Outten said. “We just implement them.”
But the Green Wave are also a year wiser after falling in the region finals a season ago to Sarasota. Roker and Flynn are seniors, Boland is a junior and Outten and Autumn Giles are sophomores. The addition of freshmen Destanni Henderson and Bethany Brunson has added a much needed punch to the team’s scoring.
And even without one of Outten’s best games on Saturday — the team’s third-leading scorer had six points on 3-of-15 shooting — Fort Myers still managed to outlast the Mustangs on the strength of their defense.
“Our defense has gotten so good lately,” sophomore Autumn Giles said.
The fact that the Green Wave are in the state semifinal remains special in many of the player’s eyes, even as the majority have played on big stages before.
A year ago, Brunson and Henderson won a Lutheran School national championship as eighth graders with Saint Michael Lutheran School. Giles and Outten have played in big AAU events before.
But there’s something about a win-or-go-home game that gets their heart pulsing.
“In AAU you’re not thinking about losing and now it’s lose-or-go-home,” Outten said. “It’s stuck in your mind. I hate to lose on any circuit, but right now it’s more.”
And so before they head out on the road to The Lakeland Center Thursday, the Green Wave will sing the alma mater one more time, perhaps finishing with a stomp or a whoop.
Hail to the school we love.
Here’s a toast to thee!
IF YOU GO
Who: FHSAA Class 7A girls basketball finals
Where: The Lakeland Center in Lakeland
When: Thursday and Saturday
Thursday’s semifinals: Apopka Wekiva vs. Haines City, 7 pm; Fort Myers vs. Palm Beach Lakes, 8:30 pm.
Saturday’s final: 10:05 am.
Note: Tickets are $10 per session. Parking is $8.