Lakewood Ranch girls basketball program building its own brand behind former Southeast star

Mustangs, who once practiced outside, have become force under Hadley

adell@bradenton.comJanuary 4, 2014 

LAKEWOOD RANCH

Tina Hadley earned accolades at Southeast High as a player when she helped the girls basketball team win the 1985 state championship.

The sport was revered at her alma mater, which made what she saw at Lakewood Ranch more than two decades later so agonizing.

"They were practicing outdoors," Hadley said about what was a defining moment for her more than seven years ago.

Lakewood Ranch had what could be called a state-of-the-art gym for a high school.

It was being shared by the school's volleyball and boys basketball teams. If the girls were fortunate, they would get practice time on the floor, Hadley said.

"That's what people thought about girls basketball here at the time," Hadley said. "It was not taken seriously. I guess there was a conflict about the use of the gym and the girls coach conceded."

When she took over the Lakewood Ranch program in 2007, Hadley put an abrupt end to outdoor practices.

Getting her program to the level of Southeast was another story.

But that's getting closer. After winning a district title last season, the Mustangs were ranked second in the state in Class 7A in the most recent Florida Associated of Basketball Coaches poll and are sporting a 15-2 record after Friday's 60-43 victory over Riverview.

A recent game with Southeast created a lot of excitement. The Seminoles won, though Lakewood Ranch's 6-foot-2 freshman LaDazhia Williams insists the Mustangs lost because their point guard didn't play.

It's a comment people would've laughed at a few years ago. Now it sparks an emotional debate.

Hadley has nothing but praise for Williams, who scored a career-high 27 points and pulled down 14 rebounds Friday, and says she is better than Chountelle Bullock, the best player on the '85 Southeast team.

"LaDazhia rates at the top of all the big players who came through here already as a freshman because you can't put a cap on her potential," Hadley said. "Skillwise she is playing like a junior. She can shoot the ball, but just doesn't. Chountelle could jump through the roof, but she was 5-11 and not a true big man."

The Lakewood Ranch girls' basketball team is no longer irrelevant. At a school were girls' teams in soccer, volleyball and softball have thrived, basketball is starting to get equal footing.

Things began to change dramatically when Hadley created Next Level Hoops in 2009, which trains, coaches and operates basketball teams for elementary- to high school-age girls.

"In the beginning I had girls try out for basketball who couldn't make layups," Hadley recalled. "The kids who were interested in basketball didn't have anyone to take them to the next level. I started an open gym."

During those early years, not many girls showed up. But interest began to grow and then an explosion of sorts occurred when Hadley started her first travel team.

"Now I have people who are basketball players versus people who want to play basketball," Hadley said.

It has been a process. A lot of those kids who came to her open gyms in the beginning were elementary-school kids. Now they are in high school, and dividends are being paid.

Hadley found some players basketball coaches fondly refer to as gym rats. Included in the group is senior guard Emily Bulfin, the Mustangs' best three-point shooter and second-leading scorer, who averages 13.4 points per game and leads the team with five steals per game.

Bulfin, the only senior starter, found the perfect complement to her game this season in Williams, Lakewood Ranch's leading scorer (15.9 ppg), rebounder (10.2 rpg) and shot blocker (2.9 per game).

They are the foundation of a team that underwent a cultural change last year with the arrival of a group of freshmen who brought a new attitude to the team.

"The players on this team are the hardest workers I have played with and the most dedicated," Bulfin said.

The key freshman arrivals last year included point guard Kailyn Scully, Elise Spiller and Megan Hagy. They were joined this year by Williams and freshman Aleah Robinson, who was recently lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Robinson was averaging 7.6 points and 6.7 rebounds. Scully is at 7.5 points per game and pulling in five rebounds per game despite playing guard.

"Everybody took the practices more seriously. Coach Hadley was tougher and added a lot more discipline," Bulfin said. "LaDazhia runs the floor really well. You can always count on her to get a rebound. She is best big I've ever played with. I am excited to come back and watch her play when she's a senior. She is going to be dunking."

Williams comes from an athletic family that includes her father, Alphonso Williams, who played high school basketball in Cleveland, and two older brothers.

"They taught me to be strong with the ball. My dad is 6-3. I am 6-2, and the doctor told me I could expect to grow about two more inches," Williams said. "What I like most to do in basketball is block shots and run the floor. I was always faster than the other big men and took advantage of that."

Hadley is considered by many to be the heir apparent to hall of fame coach John Harder at Southeast, who is a living legend.

However, she says she has no interest in going back to coach at Southeast.

"I came here because I wanted to do something people said couldn't be done, which is build a girls basketball power in East Manatee County," Hadley said. "I am happy here. We are not the new Southeast. We are the new Lakewood Ranch."

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