JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was always easy to overlook the Raines girls basketball team.
The Vikings had won all of two playoff games in Florida High School Athletic Association history entering this season. Combine that with their proximity to Ribault, the most storied girls program in state history, and the rub was constant.
This year, there’s no question about it though. The Vikings (27-4) have come out from the shadow of Ribault and put together the best season in Raines girls basketball history. The Vikings face Oxbridge Academy (27-2) on Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the Lakeland Center.
Vikings coach Julius Paden knew the potential was there and that Raines was just scratching the surface. The Vikings were young, just two seniors are on the roster, and the potential was evident.
It just needed some convincing from Paden and assistant Ivan Jennings to bring it out of Raines.
“We started building this my first year, I started telling them my plan, the vision that I had for Raines basketball,” said Paden, who is in his third year. “That we’re going to be a dynasty.”
Paden was an assistant at Ribault under state hall of fame coach Bernard Wilkes for close to 25 years. When he switched sides of Moncrief Road, he said that he took the Wilkes mantra with him.
“I wanted to give them a Lakeland experience. That’s what I came here talking about. I want you to have the opportunity to walk on that floor, to step up on that floor at Lakeland,” Paden said. “I began telling them about all the experiences I had as an assistant with Coach Wilkes and what that’s like to be able to go to Lakeland and play in that arena. This is where it is. This is the program we started and we built to this point.”
The second part of that convincing came in the form of Ribault, the most successful girls program in state history.
“When we played Ribault last year and we beat Ribault by 17 … that set a tone and let them know, you can beat Ribault,” Paden said. “Ribault is the measuring rod. Doesn’t matter if they’re not playing this year. They are still the measuring rod. In year’s past we’d play and get beat 76-12. Those days are over. Those days are over. That’s the mindset they had coming together. Let’s see where we are. Let’s measure ourselves against Ribault.”
It took until this season to put things all together though, capped by Raines’ dramatic, 56-55 regional final win over Tallahassee Florida State University High.
Teyana Carswell hit a free throw with less than a second to play to put the Vikings on the big stage for the first time. Carswell echoed what Paden and multiple Vikings players said was the reason for the run.
“Hard work, defense and offense,” she said. “First practice [of the season], we didn’t even have a game and I just knew [it was going to be a special season].”