Last year the Gainesville boys basketball team came up just short of a postseason berth.
The Hurricanes, who finished 17-10, lost at Fleming Island (Orange Park) in the 6A-District 3 title game and missed the state playoffs.
However, GHS returns a majority of their core players from last season, including leading scorer Theo Stephens (17.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.7 SPG), a first team All-Area selection last year.
“Theo is a grinder,” said head coach Mike Barnes, who enters his second season with the ‘Canes. “The game has slowed down a lot for him and he’s just a put his head down and get to the basket, he’s reading defenses more, he knows when to attack, he knows when to pull up, and he knows how to finish games.”
Stephens had 22 points, including 9-of-10 from the free throw line, this past Tuesday night in a 57-54 win against city rival P.K. Yonge at The Purple Palace.
“Whatever college gets him in the future is going to get a super tough kid,” said Barnes, who noted Stephens currently has interest from some D-II schools. “We’re working hard to find a good place for him. I really do think he’s been overlooked and I think he’s one of the best guards in not only this area but North Florida. Hopefully, some schools start to take notice.”
The senior had 23 points in a big 67-57 win against Lowndes (Valdosta, GA) at the 10th annual Mighty Ike tournament at Williston High School last Saturday.
GHS, which is off to a 3-0 start, has a great supporting cast back, including point guard Seth Childers (8.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.8 spg, 4.8 apg), who missed the last month of the 2021-22 season with a torn ACL but was still a 2nd team All-Area selection.
“He’s a leader out there,” Barnes said. “Seth is kind of our more vocal leader. He’s big on communications with the guys and it’s great to have him out there as kind of a floor general.”
Childers, who finished with seven points against PK, had 11 assists and just two turnovers against Lowndes.
The biggest surprise is the addition of senior Josh Hayes.
“It was unexpected him arriving here,” Barnes said of the transfer from The Rock School in Gainesville. “A lot of eyes in the gym are on him, not only the fans, but he’s a guy that other teams have to game plan for.”
The 6-foot-9 forward/center, who has signed with Appalachian State, had 13 points against the Blue Wave and 19 against Lowndes.
“I think we’ve got something special,” Hayes said. “We’ve got a good, true point guard in Seth, we’ve got Theo who can score the ball from anywhere, and we all can shoot.”
Other key returnees include seniors Jordan Bodie (5.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG), Vontrell Hankison (5.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG), and SJ Westbrook (8.7 PPG 4.2 RPG), plus the addition of 6-foot-3 junior guard/forward Ant Leivanon.
“I feel like we can be great,” Stephens said. “We’ve got Seth back from an ACL, we’ve got another ball handler, and we’ve got a 6’9 Josh who can rebound and score at will. It’s just great having him and I feel like we can go far if all of us lock in and play together.”
Tuesday’s game against the Blue Wave came down to a final possession and P.K. Yonge had opportunities to win the game.
“Tonight (Tuesday vs. PKY) was kind of a reality check for them,” Barnes said. “Everybody is going to give their best versus us. We have a lot of pieces and it’s about working together offensively, and on the defensive end especially, and executing.”
The Hurricanes will compete in a tough Class 6A-District 2 which includes Tallahassee schools Lincoln, Leon and Chiles, plus Mosley (Lynn Haven) and rival Buchholz.
“To earn a high seed in the district tournament means taking each game one at a time and realizing that all of our games are important,” Barnes said. “We cannot have any let downs with regards to preparation, intensity and execution. Should we be fortunate enough to earn a spot in the state playoffs, our region is tough as well with good competition from North Florida ranging from Jacksonville to the Panhandle.”
GHS has a competitive schedule during the regular season including all the city games, “which are always intense and are games the guys look forward to,” Barnes said, plus the Hurricanes are participating in the Battle of the Island Tournament at Fleming Island as well as the Kelleher Law Holiday Hoopfest hosted by Golden Gate High in Naples.
“For our team to have a successful season, we need to practice, prepare and play at a consistently high level,” Barnes said. “I feel if we do that, can avoid any catastrophic injuries, and take each game one at a time, we can have a great year and accomplish our goals of winning a district championship, make it to Lakeland and compete for a state championship.”
GHS will travel to Palatka (1-0) on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. tip.
“I’m just glad that, this being my second year, we’re able to keep guys here and make them have a good experience here where they want to play here and stay,” Barnes said. “Our whole starting five, six, seven, top eight guys have stayed here, so I’m very thankful for that.”