A lot of factors can explain why the Fort Myers girls basketball team played so well on the court this season, but there’s one that’s likely to go unnoticed.
Their cell phone group chat.
How many state champion teams text all day, every day? From January to December? How long can a chain message last before it becomes so ridiculous it has to go down in flames?
In the case of the Green Wave, who clinched their first state championship in school history last Saturday in Lakeland, there is no such end date.
They wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have it.
“We talk about anything and everything,” Fort Myers junior point guard Jarya Outten said. “Sometimes it’s so weird. We’re really goofy.”
Organic chemistry. It’s one very simple explanation for the rise of the Green Wave over the past two seasons. These girls genuinely and truly care about each other’s friendships. Beyond basketball, it’s what’s drives these girls together.
On Tuesday, when Fort Myers High plans to honor the state championship team during a pep rally at 8:45 a.m., the Green Wave girls plan to enter the gymnasium in style: on hoverboards.
“At least all of us who feel comfortable on them,” Outten said.
They’ve made it routine, handling situations together and in stride.
When Outten cried after winning her first state title Saturday, the first in the girls program’s history, so did sophomore Destanni Henderson. Autumn Giles wasn’t far off, nor was Bethany Brunson, Tatum Hayes, Alexsis Johnson or Cam Boland.
“I think that’s only the second time I’ve ever seen her (Henderson) emotional,” said Robert Giles, the father of Autumn who coaches four of five of Fort Myers’ starters with Florida Futures, an AAU team based out of Fort Myers.
Six years ago, many of them stepped on the court for the first time as basketball players.
Outten and Giles, both juniors, met as fifth graders playing on Futures. A year later, Henderson and Brunson, both sophomores, would join the cast. Then came Hayes. All still play for the same organization today.
While basketball “dream teams” from across the state were being handpicked each summer to join elite teams in Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa, this small team out of Fort Myers stuck together. That foundation was the beginning of what this team would become.
At times, it wasn’t easy. Competing coaches tried to pick others away. They arrived at tournaments to hear trash talk and ridicule.
But it only motivated them to play better, they said, to prove to doubters that Fort Myers had just as much game as any other big city team.
“These girls are just as good as athletes from Dade and Broward County,” said Green Wave coach Chad Terrell, who is also a 1997 Fort Myers graduate. “They’ve been playing against competition from across the state for so long, they aren’t intimidated by anything anymore.”
So it’s been hard to separate the success the Green Wave have had over the past two seasons in Lee County from the success they’ve seen on the AAU circuit with Florida Futures.
To them, it’s not mutually exclusive but one-in-the-same.
Community School of Naples, Lehigh and Riverdale had program-defining seasons this year, too, thanks to Futures players like Stephanie Paul (CSN), Aleisha Curry (Lehigh) and Yasmeen Chang (Riverdale).
Fort Myers isn’t a second-fiddle region for basketball talent anymore. Futures is forcing college coaches to take notice. And ultimately, they are.
Henderson is one of best sophomore recruits in the nation, with scholarship offers from major college programs. Outten has committed to Furman University. Giles has gained Ivy interest from Brown and Penn. Paul signed with the University of Georgia in February.
Whenever the Green Wave went on the road, they heard it from the crowd. It’s not fair, they play together all the time, they have an advantage.
What some didn’t know were the struggles the team had to overcome. Brunson almost didn’t play this season, missing the team’s first two preseason games.
She said she lost her passion for the game. But her mother, Chanetta, thought the absence of her father, James Brunson Sr., who died in a car accident in 2007, also contributed to that emotional struggle.
Brunson ultimately came back before the regular season began and leaned on her teammates.
“The reasons I got back on was because I didn’t want to let them down,” she said.
Then there was the team itself. They were just 12-5 to begin the season. They were disjointed.
Johnson, a North Port transfer, joined the team in mid-December following a win over Cape Coral. The Green Wave were forced to transition again.
But by January, they had found their legs. Nearly every single player was contributing in some small way.
They didn’t lose the rest of the way, going a perfect 15-0 to end 2016.
They beat CSN, overcame a previous loss to IMG Academy and shutdown local powerhouse Dunbar, a perennial state contender in Class 5A.
“I knew when we won that game that we were a whole different team,” Outten said.
By the time they reached the state championship game on Saturday, they were ready.
“I knew when we were in this game, we weren’t going to lose,” Autumn Giles said. “There was no losing.”
By Monday, they were back to old routines again, on to the next group chat message, wondering what they would do next year.
After all, with just one senior graduating (Boland), they have a chance to repeat as state champions.
Check out the celebration of Fort Myers’ Class 6A girls basketball championship during a pep rally at Fort Myers High on Tuesday live on News-press.com and at The News-Press’ Facebook page. You can find more video of the Green Wave and their accomplishments on news-press.com.
The Green Wave joined elite company in Lee County, becoming just the ninth team to earn a state championship since 2010. Check out this list of past champions in Lee County.
2016: Fort Myers, girls basketball
2013: Estero, girls cross country
2012: Estero, girls cross country
2012: Dunbar, girls basketball
2011: Estero, girls cross country
2011: Cape Coral, boys soccer
2010: Bishop Verot, boys soccer
2010: Estero, girls cross country
2010: Fort Myers, boys basketball