ORANGE PARK - Ridgeview High basketball coach Jerome Clyburn, himself a playoff player while at Orange Park High School in the Raiders deep region runs in the early 2000s, has been trying to figure a way for his Panther boys to change the course of their basketball season.
"I think we are starting to gel and the guys are starting to trust each other," said Clyburn, who was a guard under coach Daryl Lauderdale for a a 2007 region quarterfinal, a 2008 region final and a 2009 region semifinal for the Raiders. "The team is starting to pay attention to details and using their teammates to find ways to make baskets and play defense."
The Panthers, whose last region playoff run was a region final finishes in Class 6A in 2013 after a region semifinal finish in 2012 under coach Rob Feltner, took a beating in the start of the season with a 19 point loss to Fleming Island in November and a 20 point loss to Bradford in December before losing an overtime game to a strong Baker County (10-5 now), 72-65, on December 11.
One key to the small measure of success, according to Clyburn, is the increased team play from forwards Augustine Kingombe and Moises Balungu.
"Those two are my two most productive players, but they have been kicking the ball out more when defenses close on them," said Clyburn, noting both are averaging double digits in scoring; 19.1 for Balungu and 15.0 for Kingombe. "They are understanding that coaches see that they are the dominant players for us and will put two maybe three guys in their way. They use to force shots even with two defenders, but now they are finding the open guy."
From there, the losses started getting closer with the Panthers making fatal mistakes late in games that could have been wins before getting a full four quarter effort to beat Buchholz 61-57.
"The gym was really excited for that game for some reason I think because Buchholz always has a strong team," said Clyburn. "I think the school believed in us a little bit more from all the previous close games and may have figured we were due to win one. That was a big one."
Though losing three straight after the Buchholz win; a 63-62 loss to 6A-Fletcher, a 68-42 loss to Robert E. Lee (15-3) and a 79-69 loss to 7A-Mandarin.
"Now that they have seen what it takes to win games, I'm thinking we may surprise some people in the district tournament," said Clyburn. "Ridgeview High used to be a big playoff team back in the day and I'm trying to get that feeling back in the gym."