JACKSONVILLE - Oakleaf High boys basketball coach Jason Price was able to summon a district title out of his troops last year with a thrilling upset win over high-flying Fleming Island High in the old district 4-8A lineup before falling in round one of the region playoffs to First Coast High School. Oakleaf finished at 18-4 last year.
"The teams we are playing here (at MLK Classic at Andrew Jackson) are combined 18-6 records," said Price, now at 4-6 for the second half of the season in the new district 1-7A. "We want really good teams to battle test the team. Our district has teams (Bartram Trail, Nease, Sandalwood, Flagler, Mandarin) that have played as tough schedule and that makes the whole district strong."
On the Oakleaf schedule in 2019 were the likes of power programs 5A-Auburndale (10-5, 22-8 last year, 7A region finalist), 5A-Ponte Vedra, 6A-Fleming Island (8-5, 22-3 last year, state semifinalist), 5A-Leesburg (8-4, 14-8 last year) and, this weekend at the Andrew Jackson Martin Luther King Classic, 5A-Mosley (9-4, 15-12 last year, district 1-6A champion, region quarters) and 6A-Milton (9-5, 20-9 last year, region quarterfinalist) out of the Florida Panhandle.
"I keep telling them this is what playoff games will feel like; speed wise and execution wise," said Price. "Sometimes they respond, sometimes they get down on themselves. That's the growing part as a team."
At the MLK Classic, Oakleaf lost to Mosley 45-43 after losing a 41-35 lead with 3:30 to go, then regrouped to beat Milton 32-28 the following day.
"The new playoff points system makes the district games important, but the head-to-head games against quality opponents bigger," said Price. "We are still trying to find our top five players to make the team gel."
Price cited Nick Lowery, a sophomore, as top scorer with a 12 points per game average.
"He is shooting the ball remarkably well with a great stretch in the beginning of the season," said Price.
Sophomore Antoine Sandy is averaging eight points per game with six rebounds from the guard spot.
Junior Markel Allums has shouldered a lot of the preseason hype as to the leader of the Knights and has responded with solid play.
"Kind of doing a little bit of everything; tied for lead in rebounds, second in scoring," said Price. "He had some little injuries that set him back, but he has come back stronger each day."
Rebounding-wise, senior Dewane Copeland is Price's money man off the boards; six per game, with Corey Humbles, a junior, adding boards.
At the point guard, Price liked senior Quintez Johnson as his quarterback on the court.
Against Mosley, Oakleaf rifled to a quick 13-5 first quarter lead with Copeland opening with a three pointer and jumper around a layup from Allums off an inbound steal.
Mosley stalled out the Knights' offense to push ahead to a 22-19 halftime lead with a handful of missed layups by Oakleaf.
After the break, Oakleaf returned to stealing and dealing with Lowery getting a hot hand with a drive and three pointer plus a nifty jumper off a pick to put the Knights back up 37-35 as the third ended.
With just about a month left in the regular season, Price has Fleming Island, Orange Park and Bartram Trail still on the schedule with Sandalwood only the second district game in the final run.