Back in the locker room at Larry Payne Gymnasium, members of the Dr. Phillips boys basketball team take some time to enjoy each other’s company.
As music blasts from a small speaker, guys take turns dancing while the others watch and laugh.
It’s a family type of atmosphere that permeates the program, which is how it should be, senior guard Juneau Anicette said. It also helps that the season for the Panthers is quickly approaching, and the guys are ready to go.
“Honestly I feel good with all the teammates we have,” Anicette said. “As soon as we got here it felt like family — we all knew each other already, and we got a few transfers in and they fit right in.”
Just as the feeling is mutual around the locker room, it’s also felt by the Panthers’ coaching staff — which is now led by first-year head coach Ben Witherspoon.
Witherspoon, who officially took over back in April, has only watched his team on the court in practices and preseason games, but he already likes what he’s seen so far — especially as it relates to team chemistry.
“It’s been great — I’ve loved being at Dr. Phillips already in my short time,” Witherspoon said. “I really love the group that we have together, and they’re really starting to come together and enjoy being around each other. I don’t have anybody that I don’t enjoy being around, which makes things easier (as a coach).”
That sense of family is something that’s nice to have, Anicette said. It was something that was severely lacking last season, and it cost the team.
“We weren’t really a team — it was more, like, individual,” Anicette said. “We all had individual goals, but we had no team goals at all … the team wasn’t really together.
“But now that we have coach Ben, he has brought us together as a family,” he said. “We have team goals.”
“Honestly I feel good with all the teammates we have. As soon as we got here it felt like family — we all knew each other already, and we got a few transfers in and they fit right in."
— Juneau Anicette
The 2018-19 season was a tough one for the Panthers, as they finished 12-15 overall — the first time in more than a decade that the program had ended the season under .500.
As Anicette said, individually there were impressive accomplishments — like Abdoulaye Thiam breaking the single-season school record for three pointers (90) — but overall, it was a pretty big disappointment.
The good news, however, is that the Panthers only lost four to graduation, while they see the return of their experienced core who will be in the starting five. Overall, nine out the 13 players Witherspoon has to work with are upperclassmen.
Seniors like Anicette, Thiam and transfer Kaleb Williams, and sophomore point guard Denzel Aberdeen, will be looked at to lead the team — especially Aberdeen, who Witherspoon tapped as being “the guy” on offense.
“We’re going to rely heavily on Denzel Aberdeen,” Witherspoon said. “It’s his first year at Dr. Phillips and he is going to be our starting point guard coming in. He’s a really smart player, good ball handler and good shooter — we’re going to rely on him to set the tone for us offensively and keep us organized.”
As a sophomore and first-year player at DP, Aberdeen has a lot of weight placed on his shoulders, but he doesn’t seem worried about it if you ask him. He’s had help from all around, and it’s gotten him to a place of comfort, Aberdeen said.
“I feel like the seniors have helped me a lot,” Aberdeen said. “They’ve helped me maintain leadership. Coach Ben has helped me a lot to speak up and be (more of) a leader and talk louder.”
Another thing that Witherspoon will look to lean on with his team is the overall size that the Panthers have to work with.
The Panthers don’t have a single player under 6 feet tall, and the bigs down low are towering — with sophomore center Ernest Udeh Jr. (6 feet, 8 inches) leading post players in height. Williams (6 feet, 6 inches), junior forward Ledger Hatch (6 feet, 5 inches), senior forward Jason Bernabe (6 feet, 5 inches) and senior center Shi Gaskin (6 feet, 5 inches) all stand at 6-foot-5 or taller.
“Our size is a definite strength of ours,” Witherspoon said. “At our public high school level, our size is rare.”
With the combination of size, shooting and general talent, the Panthers already are in better shape than they were this time last year.
But despite that fact, some of the team feels like it’s being overlooked. Whether it be how last season went or the fact that the Panthers play in one of the toughest districts in the state, the doubt is there among those outside the program. In Thiam’s opinion, the Panthers have the doubters right where they want them.
“Nobody believes in us — nobody thinks we can put in the work or win games,” Thiam said. “That’s good for us, because nobody (thinks) about us and nobody cares about us — until we play them, then they’ll find out (how good we are).”
Head coach: Ben Witherspoon
2018-19 record: 12-15
Quick hit: Despite making it to the playoffs for the 11th consecutive year, last season was one of disappointment for Dr. Phillips. The Panthers have consistently won 19-plus games for the past decade, so finishing at 12-15 — their first under-.500 season in years — is sure to have left a bad taste in their mouths. Luckily, first-year head coach Ben Witherspoon has a talented group of players, including big man Abdoulaye Thiam — who last year broke the school’s single-season record for three-pointers.
Head coach: Anthony Jones
2018-19 record: 15-9
Quick hit: Last season was one of great progress for head coach Anthony Jones, as he and the Panthers had their best year since the 2013-14 season. A big part of that came because of senior combo-guard Zoe Alexander, but now Jones will look to others to lead the Panthers back to the playoffs.
Head coach: Dejon Everson
2018-19 record: 4-22
Quick hit: The 2018-19 season was a tough one for Foundation. The Lions only managed to pick up four wins. Luckily for head coach Jonathan Richardson, he will have leading scorer Danny Stutsman (13.9 PPG) back.
Head coach: Deborah Pennick
2018-19 record: 2-10
Quick hit: Last season, Foundation only won two games, but for first-year head coach Deborah Pennick, it was a victory of sorts. The Lions failed to get a single win during the 2017-18 season. Important players returning for the Lions include eighth-grader Chelsey Bryant — who as a seventh-grader led the team in points (11.4 PPG) — and sophomore Jenelle Courtney, who led the team in rebounds (5.7 RPG).
Titans boys team
Head coach: Rob Gordon
2018-19 record: 6-21
Quick hit: A six-win season last year was tough for Olympia, but there’s some good news for head coach Rob Gordon’s side — he has youth. A lot of the young talent from last season — many of whom were sophomores — are back this year.
Titans girls team
Head coach: Gina Solano
2018-19 record: 11-12
Quick hit: After a stint as the head coach over at Ocoee, Gina Solano has found a new home at Olympia High School. Solano looks to give stability and build a culture for a program that has seen four different coaches over the last four years.
THE FIRST ACADEMY
Head coach: Chris Mayberry
2018-19 record: 15-13
Quick hit: TFA loses a lot of size down low — Koby Morgan (6-foot-7) graduated and Jeremiah Bannister (6-foot-6) transferred — but head coach Chris Mayberry has talent coming back from last year’s district runner-up Royals team. Players such as senior shooting guard Alex Shields and senior guard Kam Summers will be among a team loaded with upperclassmen.
Head coach: Tierra Brown
2018-19 record: 11-10
Quick hit: Head coach Tierra Brown goes into the season down her best player in Nyla Harris — who transferred to Lake Highland Prep — alongside some other key players. The Royals will miss Harris’ 20.3 points per game, but so far, ShaRiya Davis has popped up as a new leader — having picked up 18 points and four rebounds in the Royals’ opening game against Lake Nona Tuesday, Nov. 19.
Head coach: Mark Griseck
2018-19 record: 27-5
Quick hit: In only its second year, the Windermere basketball program found success that takes many teams years to attain, as the Wolverines went 27-5 with an appearance in the state Final Four. This year’s team is different, however, after the Wolverines lost the talents of Dakota Rivers (16.5 PPG, 8.9 RPG), Josh Colon (12.2 PPG) and Dante Love (12 PPG, 4.6 RPG) to graduation. Fortunately, head coach Mark Griseck will have a ton of talent — including a college-caliber player in junior point guard Trey Moss (11.8 ppg, 6.5 RPG).
Head coach: Misty Cox
2018-19 record: 21-6
Quick hit: Last season was a year of firsts for the young Windermere girls team, as the Wolverines won 21 games and the school’s first district title in the sport. Although the Wolverines lost a few girls — including Mikayln Nash — they still return talent, as well as a few newcomers. The Wolverines will be led by junior guard Abigail Crain, who was tapped as this year’s team captain.
Head coach: Brian Hoff
2018-19 record: 10-17
Quick hit: Windermere Prep returns to the hardwood with a team that has more experience and more size than in previous years. Second-year head coach Brian Hoff has two captains in Zavien Williams and Jouldan Velez who will lead the team, while big men such as sophomore Fanbo Zeng (6-foot-9) and new guy Elijah Hulsewe — who stands at 6-foot-11 — will clog up the post for the Lakers.
Head coach: Emmalee Schill
2018-19 record: 9-7
Quick hit: This season’s Windermere Prep girls team is younger than most, as the Lakers have two middle schoolers in Gloria High (seventh grade) and Olivia Ikea (eighth grade) to play alongside three sophomores and three juniors. Leading the way for the Lakers will be girls like junior point guard Madison Workman, as Windermere Prep looks to have another over-.500 year.