The FAMU DRS girls basketball team may want to think about getting a timeshare in Lakeland.
In what feels more like a yearly ritual than a challenging journey, the Rattlers have returned yet again to the FHSAA Finals.
But this year wasn’t a guarantee by any stretch, not after losing four-time All-Big Bend Player of the Year Lakaris Salter to graduation, while simultaneously breaking in new head coach Ericka Cromartie.
And while everyone knew the capabilities of junior guard Jazmine Jones, the national recruit was still just one in a lineup that needed to solidify a new starting rotation and escalate the play of its reserves.
FAMU DRS (25-2) answered all its question marks in reaching the FHSAA Class 2A state semifinals, where it will play Academy at the Lakes (27-1) on Tuesday morning for the right to play in Thursday’s championship game.
“The main thing now is just to settle down and play the way we have all year,” Cromartie said.
“Once we do that, I think we’ll be successful. We’re familiar with our opponent. We’ve seen them before. Our gameplan doesn’t change. We’re going to continue to put pressure on them and make them do things they don’t want to.”
Academy at the Lakes is no stranger to Lakeland or the Rattlers as well. The Wildcats are making their fourth straight trip to the 2A state semis. They fell 57-34 to FAMU DRS in the 2013 state title game, and 67-46 in the 2012 semis.
The Wildcats are also riding a similar big-time player in sophomore center Imani Thomas, who averaged 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game last year as a freshman on her way to being named The Tampa Tribune’s Pasco County Player of the Year.
But even without Salter, who could have matched body-for-body with the six-foot Thomas, the Rattlers have proven to be just as strong a rebounding team.
Jones is six-feet tall and athletic in averaging 17.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season. Jones, center Ambriel Scott, freshman point guard Lakrista Walker, forward Raygene Garner, and reserve forward Ashley Carr have all shown proclivity to be double-digit rebounders.
“We will definitely rely on our leaders, the ones that have been here— Jaz, Raygene, Ja’Nyia (McNealy)— but the younger ones, once they get a feel for it, as the game goes on I feel they’ll step in and do their part also,” Cromartie said. “It will be an overall team effort.”
Garner is one example of someone with athleticism that has come full circle to be a well-rounded basketball player and a trusted element of this year’s team.
The senior was the 2013 All-Big Bend Player of the Year for the Rattlers’ flag football team. She was a first-team All-Big Bend selection in volleyball this past fall. She’s the school’s starting pitcher in softball.
Basketball was a chance to be a role player with Salter and Jones grabbing headlines. Even McNealy has been a double-digit scorer on average as the team’s 3-point threat. But Garner reached that scorer status this year, and now she understands her value to the success FAMU DRS has had.
“Last year, I fed off Jaz, Lakaris and Ja’Nyia, but now I have to fend for my own and bring energy and hustle,” said Garner, who is averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game. “Coach is telling me the team feeds off that. It showed in one game where I didn’t play as hard as I was supposed to play. The team was down, and when I picked up my game, the tempo picked up and it fed the team.”
FAMU DRS hopes it can get through to face the winner of Grandview Prep and Sarasota Christian— another two state mainstays the last several years— and get another shot at the state title it missed out on last year in trying to capture three in a row.
“When we go out there on that court, we’re not going to give up,” Garner said.
“We know if we don’t play together we won’t get a state title. We’re going to play our game and play the way we know we can play. If we do that, everything will be fine.”
FHSAA State Tournament
Lakeland Civic Center
Class 2A Girls
• Today’s games: Academy at the Lakes vs. FAMU DRS, 10 a.m.; Grandview Prep vs. Sarasota Christian, 11:30 a.m.
• Championship: Thursday, 3:35 p.m.