- June 26, 2019
The West Orange High School girls basketball team finishes off a practice with some five-on-five action.In the middle of it all is first-year head coach Brian Rizo, who shouts instructions as the ball rotates around the court.
It’s Wednesday, Nov. 20, and it’s the last practice before the Warriors tip off in the first regular-season game against Olympia the following night.
“It’s one of those things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and now that it’s here, I’m just ready,” Rizo said. “I’ve been very anxious and excited to just get this season started. We had a really good test this past weekend in our preseason, so I know that there is a lot of exciting things that we are going to be able to do.”
That sense of eagerness to get the season started is shared amongst the girls at West Orange — including sophomore guard Ajalon “AJ” Gillard, who is going into her second season with the Warriors.
“I’m very confident in my team,” Gillard said. “I just feel like we have been getting to know each other more and have become family. I just love being with these people, so I’m very confident that we are going to play our best tomorrow, and if we play as ourselves, then we are going to execute.”
The word “family” gets thrown around a lot when you talk to the girls on the team, and there is a reason for that.
Since taking over during the summer — following the departure of coach Shrell Chamberlain — Rizo has stressed the importance of family and playing as a cohesive unit.
It’s an understandable approach, because his arrival brought about a change in culture for a team loaded with generally young, inexperienced talent.
Coming into a program that lost its coach and five players — four of whom were seniors, including Morgan Beacham and Sarah Placide — he knew it was important to build trust.
“It’s one of those things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and now that it’s here, I’m just ready. I’ve been very anxious and excited to just get this season started.”
— Brian Rizo
“Basketball — just like anything relationship-wise — is all based on trust,” Rizo said. “They didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do or why I was doing what I was doing.
“Just like anything, people don’t like change, and so as I started implementing change … they want to ask questions or they want to resist what is happening,” he said. “But now, as we are going along and they’re believing and trusting me and trusting the system, they’re seeing how the team has actually become better.”
It’s tough to get a true feel of how a team will be based on preseason alone, but for the Warriors, the offense clicked as they hit an average of 70 points per game.
If the Warriors can keep that rate up during the regular season, it will be an impressive feat. They lost four of their top five scorers from last year’s 23-5 team that won the district title and made it to the playoffs.
“We lost a lot of firepower, so the tone that I have kind of set for the team is that we are still good enough,” Rizo said. “Essentially, I’m playing with four bench players who were on the team last year, but they didn’t see the floor a ton because of the senior leadership. I’m basically taking this group that didn’t see the floor — didn’t have their opportunity yet to be on the big stage — and putting them on that stage, and just preparing them mentally and physically to take over.”
But the progress so far has been impressive, and it all starts with a trio of girls Rizo believes will be the driving force.
Gillard and senior guard Camryn Siemer will trade time at the point, while sophomore Paris Pickett — who last year was second in points (9.5) and first in rebounds (177) — will play a big role down in the post.
As a point guard, and as one of the team’s two seniors, Siemer also will play a vital leadership role for Rizo in this new season. The new role is a bit of a change for Siemer, but there’s no added stress whatsoever, she said.
“I know my team,” Siemer said. “I know no matter win or lose, I know we tried our best, no matter what happens. We share the ball a lot, and if somebody is on it, we make sure they get the ball, and if somebody is missing, we’ll say, ‘OK, next half you got it, we’re going to make sure you get the ball’ — we make sure everybody gets a point, at least.”
That kind of mentality from his players is something Rizo likes to hear, because with the right kind of attitude, this year’s team is going to do some big things.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily expect a lot from us because we are young,” Rizo said. “But I think we are going to surprise a lot of teams this year. I think we are going to accomplish some great things as a team, and I’m just excited to get started.”
Head coach: Andrew Gustafson
2018-19 record: 21-10
Quick hit: Last year, CFCA won its first state title, but this year’s squad is almost a new team. The Eagles lost their core of talented players, and others will have to step in and fill those shoes. There’s also a change at head coach, as former assistant Andrew Gustafson takes over after Jonathan McClintock stepped down. Gustafson will be relying on returners such as Jajuan Preaster and newcomers such as the 6-foot-10 Imanuel Zorgvol to push the Eagles back to the playoffs.
Head coach: Ashley Minor
2018-19 record: 0-17
Quick hit: Last season, the Eagles didn’t see a win, but that’s to be expected after the girls basketball program was revived at CFCA for the first time in years. Head coach Ashley Minor is now in her second year and is hoping to develop talent and pick up her first win as the head of the program.
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 then 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).
Head coach: Matt Post
2018-19 record: 11-14
Quick hit: First-year head coach Matt Post takes over a program that will be missing some of its biggest players from last year. Brothers Nathaniel and Nicholas Rodriguez — who were the team’s top-two scorers and led in other categories — are gone, meaning someone will have to step up to fill those spots.
Head coach: Blessing Freeman
2018-19 record: 11-4
Quick hit: Head coach Blessing Freeman saw her side hit its stride during an 11-4 season last year. A big part of that success came on the shoulders of Tya Freeman, who dominated opposing defenses by averaging 23.2 points per game. This year, the Eagles will be without Freeman’s sharpshooting abilities, but some young talent will look to make this year as special as the last.
Head coach: John “Sarge” Siers
2018-19 record: 16-12
Quick hit: Last year, the Knights had a respectable 16-12 season — which ended with a loss in the opening round of the playoffs. This year could be better, as Ocoee returns the core of its best talent. Guys such as Alston Andrews and David Green — who just signed on with Division 1 programs — will be back to the court, alongside a team comprised of all juniors and seniors.
Head coach: Lauren Ashley
2018-19 record: 5-17
Quick hit: Former West Orange High assistant Lauren Ashley was named the Knights’ head coach earlier this year, and you can bet she is ready to get things started. Ashley takes over a program that has struggled a bit over the last few years — going 5-17 last season — but that doesn’t means the Knights won’t see progress this season.
Head coach: Eric Jones
2018-19 record: 6-20
Quick hit: Last season ended with a seven-game losing streak for West Orange, so this year the Warriors will look to right the ship — though they will be without their top talent. Darrell Harding, Jamarcus Clark and Nigel Brown — the team’s top three scorers — are gone, meaning head coach Eric Jones will look to players such as junior Mike McCalister to step up and get the Warriors back above .500 for the first time since 2017-18.
Head coach: Brian Rizo
2018-19 record: 23-5
Quick hit: At 23-5, the West Orange girls team had one of the best seasons of any team in the area. The Warriors won a district title before going on to make the regional semifinal. This year, however, the Warriors will be without four of their five leading scorers — all of whom graduated — but there’s good news for first-year head coach Brian Rizo, as he has a talented young group of players to work with. Led by girls like Paris Pickett — who finished second in scoring (9.5 PPG) last year — and guards Camryn Siemer and Ajalon Gillard, the talent is there to have another big season.