Graduation of Dominique Redding inspires team effort that has girls on verge of state final.
CLEARWATER - Forgive the pollsters for not ranking the Clearwater girls basketball team at the beginning of the season.
At first glance, the Tornadoes appeared to be in dire straits. Dominique Redding, a 6-foot-1 power forward who was arguably the best player in Pinellas County history, was gone.
Redding graduated in May and is playing for legendary coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee. That seemed to spell doom, and many questioned how Clearwater would do without her.
The answer: just as well.
Maybe even better.
With Redding, the Tornadoes went to three state semifinals. Without her, Clearwater (27-2) is back in the state tournament, playing Fort Walton Beach (20-9) in the Class 5A semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lakeland Center.
If the Tornadoes win, they'll play in the final against the Plant-Fort Lauderdale Dillard winner at 7 p.m. Friday.
"Everybody loves to ask whether this team is better," Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt said. "I understand why the question is asked, but it's so hard to compare. I know that this team is capable of playing as well as any team that I've ever had. I'll leave it at that."
Shaneyfelt knew his team would be significantly different team without Redding, the All-Suncoast Player of the Year the past two seasons.
Since Redding was a freshman, Clearwater had left the ball in her hands when the chips were down. She usually delivered, and her teammates rode her shirttail to greater recognition and popularity.
"You use what you have," Shaneyfelt said. "Dominique was our No.1 weapon. There was no need to disguise that. Whenever we hit a skid, we looked for her."
Besides the points and rebounds, Shaneyfelt also had to fill the leadership vacuum created by Redding's departure. It was a difficult task considering most of the returning players were underclassmen who had been Redding's sidekicks for years.
But Shaneyfelt took solace in knowing he still had enough talent to keep the Tornadoes among the elite.
"I certainly felt we were capable of getting back to the state semifinals," Shaneyfelt said. "These players went up against some of the better teams around the state during the offseason and did fine. After that, there was no doubt we would be able to set the bar high."
This season, Clearwater has a bit of everything. Nicole Ryan has developed into one of the best point guards around and is adept at shooting. Rachel Hammond is a solid shooter. Brittany James and Karly Counts play airtight defense. Danielle Kostacky, Karen Braden and Heather Barber provide strength up front.
"We knew that Dominique was going to have the spotlight," Ryan, a junior, said. "You open up the paper and there's a three-page article on her. That was fine. We understood that. She was great and she is missed. But we accepted the challenge."
Maintaining they might be more talented this season and equally driven to win the title, the Tornadoes started working toward their goals not long after Redding received her diploma.
"I think we all had this drive to be the best," Ryan said. "We accepted the challenge and wanted to prove that we can still be a dominant team."
During the spring and summer, the remaining starters wedded the others to their sense of purpose. Nearly every player was on a club team and did extra work in the weight room.
"Coach gave a list of things he wanted us to do in the offseason," Hammond said. "It was up to us get it done, and we did."
Shaneyfelt was so impressed with their work ethic that when he went to Indiana during winter break, he left the gymnasium keys with another teacher who supervised the players while they practiced.
"I don't how many other coaches would let their team run practice," Shaneyfelt said. "But that's how much trust I have in these girls. To a large extent, they coach themselves. I've never had a team that has worked as hard or been more enjoyable to coach. They developed quite a bond and came together as a team."
To prove the Tornadoes' whole is greater than the sum of their parts, the players preached togetherness and vowed to remain united, even off the court.
They have team meals and often go to movies or attend school functions as a group.
"If we feel we're drifting apart, we'll try to do things to keep us united," Ryan said. "That's been big for us."
Their family atmosphere even includes Redding. Ryan talks to her former teammate almost daily, and Redding's grandmother still attends most games.
"I'm real proud of the girls," Redding said. "I tried to provide a lot of encouragement last year. They're all great players, and I knew they'd be able to get back to this point."
Now, the players will try to do something that has never been done at Clearwater.
Win a state title.