‘Player driven’: Oakleaf girls’ determination has them back in state final four

Oakleaf basketball (2023 WJXT)

After Oakleaf lost in the playoffs last season, it didn’t take long for the leaders on the girls’ basketball team to start working toward a better season.

“Normally, I take about three weeks off or so, and after a week and a half, they were like, ‘Coach, can we please get back in the gym? We gotta get back,’” said head coach Fred Cole.

So back in the gym they went. That focus. That drive to improve their season has been evident as the season has played out.

This season, the Knights’ only losses of the season came against Alpharetta (GA) Valor Christian in an early season tournament, then at the No. 1 team in our News4Jax Super 6, Bishop Kenny on Jan. 19. In between those losses, Oakleaf reeled off 18 straight wins. Since the loss to BK, they’ve won seven straight games.

“After that (Bishop Kenny) game, I think it really got us refocused,” Cole said. “We had to sit on that game for over a week because we were supposed to play that Saturday. But Leon had a bunch of injuries. So they canceled, so we have no other games on Friday. And we had to sit on it. And once we played Parker, and then when districts started, I thought we were playing like dynamite just defensively and offensively.”

Oakleaf faces Punta Gorda Charlotte, 21-6, Thursday in the Final Four in Lakeland. The winner faces Lake Gibson or St. Thomas Aquinas in the 6A state championship game. The key for Oakleaf will be their defense. Despite a pair of outstanding scorers on the perimeter—Kayla Turner is averaging 23 points per game and Fantasia James adds 18.5 per contest—when the Knights turn up the intensity on defense, that’s when they’re at their best.

“I’m a defensive guy,” Cole said. “We don’t always press to get turnovers, but you want to speed them up and get them uncomfortable. When we’re doing that in the open floor, we just kind of flow, we don’t really call offense, it’s defense, get a steal, get the rebound and go.”

Oakleaf’s resurgence is particularly impressive considering their 12-12 record a season ago. That was a letdown after going 24-3 and an appearance in the state championship game the previous season. This year, the girls’ success has mirrored the boys’ team, who lost only one game before falling Tuesday night in the playoffs.

“The boys are our biggest supporters,” Cole said. “It’s competitive, but it’s a friendly competition. It’s like, okay, we did this, what are we going to do. But our boys are like our biggest supporters. I mean, for all three years. I love those guys.”