OAKLEAF - A thrilling district championship win over eventual Class 6A boys basketball runner-up Ponte Vedra may have been the highlight of the Oakleaf High basketball season last year and an iconic …
OAKLEAF - A thrilling district championship win over eventual Class 6A boys basketball runner-up Ponte Vedra may have been the highlight of the Oakleaf High basketball season last year and an iconic memory for the program participants. Still, Knights' coach Jason Price is looking for more than a region semifinal finish in 2024.
"This is probably the deepest lineup I've ever had," said Price, before his season-opening doubleheader on Friday and Saturday that included a 75-21 thrashing of Matanzas followed by a 63-56 slugfest win over Bishop Kenny on Saturday. "Last year, we were deep and that gave us the ability to practice hard and play the way we played. This group is deeper."
Against Matanzas, Oakleaf amped up the full-court press behind sophomore guard Aaron Rivers who helped deliver an astounding 19 steals to 19 layups that stole the third quarter.
"Aaron gets after it," said Price.
Price, with post players Cameron Coachman, a shot-blocking menace on defense, and Dylan, a smooth as silk slash driver, in the college game, Price got big mileage from Travis Knox in the paint and Jarius Brown shooting threes on the perimeter to put an early 34-9 first quarter lead, a 37-12 halftime lead and a 56-16 lead with a running clock into the fourth quarter.
"Travis was our fourth-leading scorer last year and our leading free throw shooter," said Price. "We've got some guys that have been on the court a few years for us."
Against Bishop Kenny, with the Crusaders sinking a handful of second-half three-pointers, the Knights relied on Rivers' breaks with five steals to 18 points on the night with Austin Davenport adding another 14 with six rebounds and three blocked shots.
Oakleaf gets back in the gym on Fri., Dec. 1 with a home game against Ridgeview, who opened with a 61-49 win over West Nassau under new coach Chandler Harper. Harper takes over for Jerome Clyburn.
Chandler's lineup features a host of high-flying athletes including high jump state qualifier T'Vario Willis, football wide receiver Deshun Green and massive football defensive end Jarius "JJ" Moore at 6'2, 220 lbs.
Against West Nassau, Deidrick Parsons, a senior, punched in with 18 points with Willis adding 16.
Ridgeview gets a first test with Orange Park visiting on Tuesday, November 28. The game will be the Raiders season opener. Also in district 2-5A with Ridgeview, Clay (7-16 last year) and Middleburg (10-14) will be battling with Baker County, Rickards and Columbia in a district that had just Columbia with a winning season record, 20-10.
The Raiders, 18-9 last year with an early exit to Ponte Vedra in the district 3-6A tournament, don't have all everything Josiah Sabino, now at Jacksonville University, but do return rugged paint player Archieve Triggs III, a 6'-2" attack player. Orange Park had two strong preseason wins over Episcopal (50-44) and Nease (40-38) at the Clay High Preseason Classic two weeks ago in what coach Derek Kurnitsky called the best defensive effort he's seen as a Raider coach. Kurnitsky got mileage from transfer Jacob Hensen from Westside who put in 12 points with six assists against Episcopal and 22 points and three dishes against Nease.
The other early out from last year's district 3-6A tournament, Fleming Island (lost to Nease in quarters) looks to return to Final Four status as in past seasons and will rely heavily on a freshman postman; Carson Crawford, a 6'5" post player that could be the answer to departed power players Ethan Williams (6'-4"), Axel Holmquist (6'-8"), Aidan Tarter (6'-6") and Darion Domenick (6'-4").
"He's going to be a dominant player once he learns how to position his body against much heavier guys," said Fleming Island coach Traavis Chandler. "We have our backcourt guys back; George Hamm, Trace Burney and Michael Hayward Jr., who will have to control the game with their speed and outside shooting."
In their season opener, Fleming Island beat a tough ED White team 69-57 before bouncing back to take out Pensacola Escambia on Saturday at the Andrew Jackson's Jackie Simmons Thanksgiving Classic 56-50 with Crawford scoring a team-high 16 points with 18 rebounds and four assists. Hamm added four assists on breakaways with seven points.
"We made this game easier for them with our poor free throw shooting," said Chandler, noting a 22 of 34 slate at the free throw line and just three three-pointers. "We had guys on vacation and not in the gym and we can correct that."
Against ED White, Hamm's 15 points led a three-man double-digit scoring spread with Marcus Reed adding 10 and Crawford putting in 13. Fleming Island was 14 of 22 from the free throw stripe.
"We expected sloppy against ED White because of new personnel," said Chandler. "Pace and space is our motto and not being as big as we have been, we have to control the floor and wear teams down with our speed and athleticism."
In district 3-2A, St. Johns Country Day School will lean on eighth-grader Cameron Cooper again after the talented youngster returns to open his season with a 25-point bonanza in the Spartans opener against River City Prep, a 69-34 win on November 21. The Spartans got 10 points apiece from freshman Dylan Reach and Luke Holcomb against River City.
Cooper will need help despite his high point totals to push the Spartans past the district tournament and that will fall on the likes of junior Grayson Moody who returns as second-team scorer but at just 7.4 points per game last year. Spartan coach Ian Gibson has a bucket load of young athletes with Moody and Carter Graham as his upperclassmen, which is good for the next few years but will be tough on the young team to grind out the season.
At Keystone Heights (14-11 last year), the Indians, under coach Carlos Lamar and the incomparable Ken Mudge, opened on the road against unbeaten (2-0) Williston on Mon., Nov. 27 with some pretty big guys led by 6'-9" Bryant Kubisiak, 6'-7" Michael Bruzzese and 6'-3" Garrison Teague under the glass. Connor Guy looks to be the backcourt ace as senior shooting ace Seth Gagnon has graduated (17 points per game).