Nease girls hoops team looks to make history

Panthers playing in first state semifinal since 1999

The Nease girls basketball team will play in its first state semifinal since 1999 on Friday in Lakeland.

History is a big topic of conversation at Nease, making it and reliving it. 

The Panthers played for a state championship on Feb. 19, 1999, beating Pensacola’s Booker T. Washington 71-62. Twenty years and three days later, Nease beat Washington 65-44 in the third round of the state playoffs to reach the state semifinals for the first time since that magical season in 1999. 

Will a state title be next up for the current Panthers? Nease coach Sherri Anthony, who has spent 33 seasons and amassed 605 victories coaching the Panthers, sees quite a bit of her 1999s in her 2019s. 

“I see a lot of similarities, the first group is always going to be my first group, I'll always love them for a lot of reasons that I could never love another group because it was my first one,” she said.

“They were such a cerebral group and had to work really hard to do all the little things right because they didn’t have the athleticism maybe to make up for something if they made a mistake. This group is a lot more full out. They play hard, fast and furious because have they’ve got that foot speed, they’ve got that ability to make up for a mistake. …”

Friday, the Panthers (28-2) will face Fort Myers (15-9) at noon in Lakeland in the Class 7A state semifinals attempting to add to the very limited girls basketball history for programs from St. Johns County.  

As it stands now, those Nease starters in 1999 — Erin Cooke, Jessica Cruz, Erin Jaeger, Kelly Stevenson and Katie Wilkins — have been inscribed throughout the history books as the only St. Johns County girls program to win an FHSAA state championship. 

Nease’s starters in 2019 — Peyton Carter, Camille Hobby, Stephanie Manherz, Tia Robinson and Kiya Turner — hope to join those Panthers names from 1999.

“It feels great that were making history, again,” Turner said. “It’s not hard [to sacrifice] when you’re trying to win. We don’t really care [who gets the accolades]. We just want to win.”

This Panthers team has a talent level that runs deep. 

Post and North Carolina State signee Hobby is the featured player (18.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg), but the players across the lineup are stout. Turner (12.5 ppg) is a four-year player, who has scored 1,660 career points, one of 19 in program history to hit that mark. Robinson is averaging 10.1 points and Carter follows at 8.6 ppg. 

The expectations were immense this season.

Nease’s quest to return to the state semifinals has been met with one disappointment after another over the years. The Panthers lost in the third round in 2013. They lost close games in 2016 and ’17. Last season seemed like the year to turn the corner, but the Panthers lost Turner to a head injury in the regional finals at Choctawhatchee and were upset, 47-42. 

This season, with every starter returning, the talk has been self-sacrifice, focusing on the next step, and doing whatever it takes to not get caught up in looking ahead. 

It’s worked well for 30 games thus far. 

“… You can’t to the last one if you don’t play the first one,” Anthony said. “We went back to that mindset of ‘It’s got to be this game, it’s got to be this quarter it’s got to be this possession it’s got to be this defensive stop.’ It can’t be, ‘What about the fourth quarter, or what about next week, what about next game?’”

Even playing for a state crown has been limited for St. Johns teams. Now-defunct Hastings lost in the 1982 Class A championship. Bartram Trail lost in the 5A game in 2012 and Ponte Vedra lost in the 6A championship last year.

About the Author: