With their home court in constant refurbishing mode, the Ocoee boys and girls basketball teams have found a second home at Ocoee High.
As members of the Ocoee Middle girls basketball team run out onto the court, they are met with thunderous cheers.
Each made bucket — from shoot around through the game itself — draws the approval of everyone packed into the gym at Ocoee High. It’s a celebration of the game of basketball and an experience that these young players will have forever.
“What we try to do is create an atmosphere that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives,” said Marcus Spencer, girls basketball coach and athletic coordinator at the school. “As they move on in life, when they refer back to their middle-school years, they remember playing at the high school playing in front of ex-students. I just try to give that experience so they feel like, ‘Man, you know what? Playing middle-school basketball is pretty cool.’”
This season, the boys and girls teams have played their home games at the high school, thanks in part to the Ocoee Middle gym being refurbished — an ongoing process.
By having their games at the high school, Spencer said it offers coaches a chance to see the talent that’s in the works at Ocoee Middle.
In that way, it is a win for the middle school, its players and those who are a part of the high-school program.
“I try to expose their talents to the next set of coaches who could possibly be coaching them one day, because a lot of times, high-school coaches want to know who is next,” Spencer said. “That’s why I try to expose them, so they can see their faces and how much their game has grown.”
Along with getting more exposure for athletes, there’s also an added benefit of getting students excited about the sport.
During their home game against Lakeview Middle Wednesday, Jan. 30, the school offered free tickets to students who completed all their assignments and displayed good behavior through the first nine weeks. It’s easy self-promotion, which is always a necessity at the middle-school level.
But like anything, there are cons that coincide with the obvious perks of playing at the high school — such as the slight inconvenience of not being able to play on your home court.
“We’ve literally played no home games all season,” boys basketball coach Wallace Phillips said. “We’ve been under a refurbishment for the gym for the last two years that has not happened yet. My guys practice on probably a condemned floor, but we make it work.”
When you keep all of this in mind, what the two basketball teams are doing now is pretty impressive.
Although the girls team finished this season at 2-3 — with a one-point loss to Wolf Lake and a two-point loss to Robinswood last week — the growth in the program has been tremendous.
Spencer’s players, led by sixth-grader Jayla Weiser and seventh-grader Janiah Jackson, have gone from a simple group of kids to a fully-functional group of players who play for one another.
“Our girls have gained more confidence, and they’re now starting to understand the game that much more,” Spencer said. “When you’re taking someone from scratch, who never played really, trying to run plays and understand basketball just in general, it takes a little time. But once it clicks, the sky’s the limit, and then they’ll feel more comfortable.”
“What we try to do is create an atmosphere that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives."
— Marcus Spencer
Under Phillips, the boys basketball team has found solid footing, as the Cardinals currently sit undefeated at 5-0 and will play in the division championship against Apopka Memorial Middle — which also is undefeated.
Throughout the regular season, the Cardinals were led by eighth-grade shooting guard Jaylyn Smith (the team’s leading scorer).
“He is a phenomenal basketball player, a gifted scorer and an excellent shooter,” Phillips said.
Throw in anchor players such as Taylor Douglas-Greene and Eberson Charles, and it’s no surprise this team is doing so well.
With that said, the Cardinals still have some basketball left to play, with the big game at Apopka Memorial Middle looming and a title on the line.
“We go through a scouting report, we go through what our plan of action is and then we go out and execute it,” Phillips said. It’ll be a tough challenge for us, but our guys will be ready to play.”