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Gryphons focus on winning title

At 18-1 and in only its fourth season, Sickles believes it has what it takes to take home the state championship.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


TAMPA -- You can watch Sickles during almost any game this season and it's very easy to realize the Gryphons are a talented team.

You can see the level of play, the three-pointers and stingy defense. You can see the results: a No. 7 ranking in Class 6A and an 18-1 record. Go to a Sickles practice, however, and you will see just how talented the Gryphons really are. More important, you will see why they are that good.

The first thing you hear upon entering the Gryphons' Lair is coach Jackie Metroka shouting instructions as she paces back and forth on the court watching her team work on an outlet drill.

Actually, that's the only sound you hear because when Metroka coaches, every player listens quietly. There are no balls bouncing, no feet shuffling, no eyes wandering.

The next thing that strikes you is the players' intensity. Keri Nadar finishes a fastbreak with a no-look pass behind her head to Ariel Northrup for a three. Renea Phelps ad-libs her best Sheryl Swoopes impersonation, gliding through the lane and scooping in a layup.

And NaTosha Ross wades through the paint to her trademark position on the baseline to get in position for yet another rebound.

This is all going on despite the fact they have been going at it non-stop for almost two hours.

Only after taking in both scenes can you fully grasp not only the potential, but the desire of this season's squad.

"I knew we had a team which had the determination and heart to go all the way and not lose a game," said Ross, a sophomore who stands out as the only non-senior starter.

Added Nadar: "I don't think there's a person I know that doesn't expect us to get past districts. This is my senior year, and there are nine seniors on this team. We're not stopping until we win state."

Winning state is something that seemed ridiculous when Nadar and Phelps were freshmen on Sickles' inaugural team during the 1997-98 season. The Gryphons finished 4-16 that first season. Metroka, who was a sophomore on the 1981 Brandon team that finished runner-up in the state with a 30-1 record, took over the following season and immediately turned the program around.

The Gryphons finished 12-7 in their second season before improving to 16-7 last season while appearing in -- and winning -- their first district championship. This season, Sickles' lone loss came at the hands of cross-town and district rival Gaither, 74-68 on Jan. 18. It is a loss it can avenge at 3 p.m. today at Gaither. That loss didn't seem to faze the Gryphons. There were no tears, no hung heads before the next game. If you talk to the players, it almost seems like they were happy to lose.

"I'm glad we lost," Nadar said. "Before that, we were playing not to lose, and now we can play to win. We were playing sheltered, and we don't have to do that anymore."

Phelps, who in the third game of the season became the first Sickles player -- boy or girl -- to reach 1,000 career points, said the Gaither game will remain in the team's mind but won't haunt it as it moves through the playoffs.

"It hurt a lot, but I'm getting over it now," Phelps said. "You have to move on."

Moving on is exactly what the Gryphons are doing.

Metroka has surrounded her team with as much success as she can find. Assistant coach and junior varsity coach Erin Campbell won a state championship when she was in high school, and Dennis Crawford, Metroka's other assistant, was a member of a state championship team in Mississippi.

The coaches talk to the girls about what to expect and what it's going to take to reach the final four. And the players listen.

"We definitely have conversations with them," Metroka said. "We talk all the time about how there is no history at this school, no tradition and that they are trying to create their own history this year.

"What do you want to be known for? We want to go to the state tournament and win the state tournament. They have expectations. Now it's just whether or not they can put the pages together to create it."

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