The recently concluded season was record-setting and historic for the King’s Academy girls varsity basketball team. For the first time in school history, the squad advanced to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 3A state final four at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
While the Lions didn’t win the state championship, the team returned home with indelible memories of a season-long journey that included an overall 24-6 record, an undefeated (13-0) home record, a district championship and a regional championship.
The foundation for this success started last summer.
“When we practiced and talked about our goals back in the summer, winning a district tournament championship was on that list,” head coach Chris Race said. “This past season, the girls earned the No. 1 seed for the district tournament and won the district tournament.”
With that district tournament title and a strong regular season record, the team was rewarded with a No. 1 seed in their regional tournament, which meant TKA would never have to go on the road to play a regional game. To win the Region 3 title, TKA would have to win three games, all against progressively tougher competition.
“Having the No. 1 seed in the regional was a huge accomplishment,” Race said. “It always helps having all the regional games at home. I feel like the girls were improving every week. We just needed to keep everyone healthy, play together, play for each other and give all the glory to God. I liked our chances against anyone.”
The road to the final four in Lakeland was filled with a few hurdles. In the regional quarterfinal on Feb. 10, TKA hosted the West Shore Wildcats from Melbourne. The Lions dominated the game from the outset by outscoring the visitors 20-8 in the first quarter. The second quarter featured more of the same, and TKA led 41-12 at halftime. The Lions outscored West Shore in every quarter to win 64-20.
“In the first game against West Shore, the girls were really excited and ready to play,” Race said. “We jumped on them early, and the girls started feeling it on defense and pressured them into a bunch of turnovers that led to fast-break points for us.”
On Feb. 15, TKA hosted local rival Cardinal Newman High School in the regional semifinal. It was a rematch of the district championship game back on Feb. 4, which TKA won, 54-42.
Race was concerned about the Crusaders because both teams were familiar with one another. “The girls on both teams have all played together at some point with travel in the summers,” he said. “I have even coached some of them in travel.”
Race prepared his team to expect the unexpected.
“We knew that they were going to try something different from that last game in the district championship,” Race said. “They came out and spread the floor to try to drive and get us in foul trouble. The girls stepped up huge on defense and played one of our better defensive games all season. After the first half, we kind of turned it up and got out and ran to get some fast-break baskets.”
TKA prevailed 43-25, which propelled them to the regional final, where they were expecting to play another local rival, the Benjamin School, which was the No. 2 seed in Region 3. But Benjamin stumbled in its regional semifinal, losing to Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy from Melbourne. So, on Feb. 18, the TKA girls hosted the Tigers from Holy Trinity.
The visiting Tigers came out strong and took a 21-16 lead after the first quarter. TKA responded by winning the second quarter by one point to trail by four points at halftime, 33-29. In the third quarter, TKA outscored Holy Trinity by five points to lead 45-44. That’s when the tide began to turn. In the fourth quarter, the Lions out-ran, out-shot and out-rebounded the Tigers. In the final stanza, TKA scored 19 points and held the Tigers to just 7. At the final buzzer, TKA prevailed, 64-51.
“It was such a great, high-level game,” Race said. “We went down 10 in the first half, but the girls never gave up. Holy Trinity also hit just about every shot they took in the first quarter. We just stayed the course and kept battling and chipped away at it. We took the lead in the third quarter and kept the pressure on them. The girls executed pretty much everything we wanted to do in the second half.”
With that victory, TKA booked a ticket to Lakeland for the state finals. In the state semifinal game, the Lions faced the Cardinal Mooney Cougars from Sarasota on Feb. 23. In this game, TKA seized an early 2-0 lead, courtesy of free throws by Jade Jones and Mo’nique Joseph, but the Cougars responded to take a 3-2 lead, which they never relinquished. Late in the first quarter, a three-pointer by Jones narrowed Cardinal Mooney’s lead to 8-7, but that’s as close as the Lions would get for the rest of the game. Cardinal Mooney outscored TKA in three of the four quarters to win the game, 50-42.
Two days later, the Cougars lost the Class 3A state championship game to Fort Lauderdale’s Westminster Academy 44-41, a team that had defeated TKA 47-38 back on Nov. 18.
While this year’s team did not win a state championship, the immediate future is strong for TKA girls basketball. The team’s top three scorers will return next year: freshman Jade Jones (12.6 points per game), junior Janessa Williams (10.9 ppg) and Race’s daughter, junior Jordan Race, (8.5 ppg).
The team will lose two seniors in Mo’nique Joseph and Margot McFadden, both of whom served as team captains.
Race said both seniors will be missed. “Margot is a fierce competitor who is the heart and soul of our team,” he said. “Mo’nique is a super aggressive post player for us.”
Two other returning players who contributed a great deal to the team’s success this year were freshman Sophia Kateris and junior Naomi Cadet.
Race is also happy to share the credit with his assistant coach.
“I also want to give credit to my assistant coach, Aftyn Knight, because she handles so many things in the background for our team,” he said. “On-the-court and off-the-court, she was there for any and all of the girls and me, as well.”
Race is thankful for the positive atmosphere at TKA, which enables him to coach.
“I think one thing I’ve been really blessed with is to have great kids to work with,” he said. “Also, we’ve had great senior leadership for the three years that I’ve been here that has shown what we want the King’s Academy girls basketball program to look like. We want to provide an excellent athletic experience with an eternal impact for the girls and their families.”
Despite the disappointment of losing at the state final four, the team had an unforgettable ride this past season that was truly record-setting and historic. The squad’s future is bright and promising.