The playoffs mark new territory every season, but for Dunbar girls basketball coach Dwayne Donnell, it almost always signals the beginning of something more, too.
New expectations and new identities.
Dunbar, the No. 2 ranked team in Class 5A by FABC, will travel to No. 9 Bradenton Southeast on Tuesday to face the Seminoles.
The same can be said for Lehigh, the No. 9 team in Class 6A, which faces off against No. 2 Fort Myers for the third time this season.
“I think people underestimate them,” Lightning head coach Troy Whitehurst said of his team. “But I believe they know who they are and what they are capable of. Now is the time to execute and to let people know they’re stars; the world just doesn’t know it yet.”
In Dunbar’s case, they’re inserting a new power trio following a year in which they reached the Class 4A final and graduated two of the best players in program history: Keri Jewett and Kiara Desamours.
But who’s keeping track? Just a year later, Donnell has another big three in point guard Dekeriya Patterson, and forwards Ja’Miah Bland and Respect Leaphart. The team scores 68.6 points per game and has accumulated a 6-1 record overall in away games.
The trio itself has combined to fill the void Jewett and Desamours left by combining for over 53 points per game, accounting for 78-percent of the team’s scoring.
“If we can get our big three going and we’re complemented by our role players, I think we’ll be just fine,” said Donnell, who last won a state title with Dunbar in 2012 in Class 4A.
Of course, the Tigers will have to win in a hostile environment Tuesday, against a team that claimed a Class 5A championship in 2014. The Seminoles best player, Breyonna Reid, was on that state championship team and now leads the team in scoring.
“You want it to be competitive for two top 10 teams,” Southeast coach John Harder said. “I think the storied traditions of both programs will enter into it. Everything is on the line.”
Donnell understands the game could be one of the team’s most difficult of the season, yet he also has prepared for this moment. The Tigers (22-5) have scheduled eight ranked teams in all classifications, including Lehigh and Fort Myers.
And the Tigers haven’t had this many losses this early since 2010.
“This schedule was built to make them battle tested,” said Donnell, whose team lost to Winter Haven (7A), Community School of Naples (3A), Miami Country Day (3A), Seffner Christian (3A) and Fort Myers (6A) and defeated Vero Beach (8A). “We’ve lost close games against good teams early, middle and late in the season, so the schedule was on purpose.”
“It’s tough going on the road and playing in a storied building against a storied program, but the rest of the way is tough,” Donnell added. “Everyone is good now.”
The Tigers will square up against a Seminoles team that gives up just 38 points per game, but Harder is quick to remind the Seminoles that they were last beat by Dunbar in a January shootout in 2013, which was the last date in which they played.
“I don’t think it’s going to make a major difference,” Harder said. “It all falls into place year in and year out. My girls play well on the road, too, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone on to state the last few years.”
Lehigh (19-6), meanwhile, has quietly made strides as one of the most improved Southwest Florida teams in 2014-15.
Perhaps the only missing piece to an otherwise hallmark season is a win over the Green Wave, which have beaten the Lightning in two previous encounters on Jan. 18 (48-42) and in the District 6A-11 championship on Jan. 29 (70-58).
The game Tuesday will provide a measuring stick for the Lightning’s rise up the region ranks. How far, exactly, have they come?
“This is a really big game for us and whether we win or lose, it’s a great opportunity to continue to grow, not just as basketball players but as individuals,” Whitehurst said.