Last season, Hernando Christian Academy’s girls basketball team put together its finest campaign, reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in team history.
Could the Lady Lions possibly piece together an encore performance? So far, they certainly have. HCA is enjoying a three-week holiday break, sitting at a perfect 12-0.
“You’ve got to feel good about yourself when you’re 12-0, that’s for sure,” HCA head coach Mike Drummond said. “We scheduled teams that were bigger than us and did pretty well. We had early success and that gave us confidence to start the season out. We’ve gotten better and better from there.”
The Class 2A Lady Lions started the season by defeating 4A Lakeland-Santa Fe, 32-25, 3A St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian, 46-34, 4A Tampa-Cambridge Christian, 33-14, and 3A First Academy-Leesburg, 54-24.
They’ve also recorded critical district wins at Tampa-Bayshore Christian on Dec. 2, 47-40 in overtime, Ocala-St. John Lutheran on Dec. 9, 49-32, and Seven Rivers Christian on Dec. 15, 41-37. They’re currently 5-0 in 2A-District 4 action.
“I thought four teams in this district were pretty even,” Drummond said. “For us to come out and get the wins that we got, those were big wins for us.
“To start out 12-0 is kind of fun. I think it’s a testament to our girls and our program, and the work they’ve put in, in the offseason and the summer; their dedication to wanting to get better.”
The Lady Lions returned most of their key players from last season, though still suffered a significant loss with the graduation of point guard Mary Jackson. She has been replaced in the lineup by one of her three younger sisters on the team, freshman Abby Jackson.
“I think the biggest thing going into this season was would we find a point guard, losing Mary and her experience,” Drummond said. “I had real low expectations (in Abby Jackson) being a freshman, but she has exceeded my expectations and she’s worked really, really hard.
“I don’t think we’ve had a big drop-off in our point guard play, so that’s been huge.”
Senior guard Cayla Phillips leads the team in scoring at 14.8 points per game, and steals at 4.8 per contest. She has also made a team-best 18 3-pointers.
Fellow senior Lauren Zappone is averaging 6.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals, while sophomore Milly Jackson has been the best all-around player at 11.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.4 steals.
Shyann McElwain has been the most improved member of the team, according to Drummond, the 6-foot-1 junior providing 5.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Newcomer Tatyana Wallace, a junior, brings size off the bench to back up McElwain, part of what Drummond calls the deepest team he has ever had.
“When you have five starters all improving and playing at a level higher than we’ve seen from five in a while, even a little better than last year, that’s probably why we’re 12-0,” Drummond said. “It’s a good situation to be in. Where it leads us in the second half of the season, who knows? You’ve still got to play the games.
“We’re only as good as the game we’re playing in. What we did in 2016; it’s a new year, new season.”
First off the Lady Lions would like to win a district championship, Drummond said, but the path through regionals is considerably easier with powerhouses such as Tallahassee-Florida A&M and Academy at the Lakes moving up to 3A. It was FAMU who hammered HCA in last season’s regional final, 85-12, and went on to win the state title.
“This year we have a target on our backs and we’re the team everybody wants to beat,” Drummond said. “Every game, teams are going to bring their ‘A’ game. We have to be ready for that and understand we’re playing in a different position than we were last year.
“I believe we have the ability to beat anybody we play in 2A. But I think when you look at the small picture, we’ll look back on 2016-17 as a pretty successful year no matter what happens at this point.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.