Preps Year in Review: SW Fla. basks in success

It was another year of firsts. First places. First evers.

In an area tucked away in what they're now calling the "Paradise Coast," many high school athletes found their way to the sports Shangri-la known as the top of the state championship podium.

The title bonanza began in the fall, when Estero cross country runner Bona Jones capped possibly the most dominant season in Southwest Florida history. Jones crossed the finish line in Dade City more than a minute before the next runner, winning the Class 2A overall state title one year after finishing as Class 3A's runner-up.

Such a blow-away performance became Jones' norm. She won the district title by nearly two minutes. She won the regional title by more than two minutes.

But, Jones said, the lonely existence of a dominant runner can change that runner's strategy.

"It makes things a lot more mental," she said. "I'm really focusing on myself more, trying to keep a steady pace and not slow down. It's hard because you're really racing against yourself and the clock. My time dropped a lot at (the South Regional championship) because there's someone running next to you."

Last fall, Estero junior Bona Jones blew away the field to win this year's Class 2A cross country state title.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

Last fall, Estero junior Bona Jones blew away the field to win this year's Class 2A cross country state title.

The football season ended earlier than it had since 2001, with Immokalee falling in the Class 3A Region 3 championship to top-ranked Glades Central. It was the first time since 2000 that a Collier County football team didn't at least make the state semifinals.

Anyone who enjoys watching championship performances was in heaven during the winter sports season. Collier athletes finished with a horde of gold medals.

Collier wrestlers finished with an astounding five state championships — three from one school. Palmetto Ridge sophomores Elias Rey, Zack Mastro and Richie Dehnz each won their respective weight classes in Class 1A. A fourth, Jordan Thompson, was runner-up.

In Class 2A, one wrestler finished his career with a state title run, while another kicked his off with gold. Senior Lee Campbell won Gulf Coast's first state title, while freshman Ben Carter won Barron Collier's second state wrestling title in two years.

But the big news came in basketball. The Barron Collier girls team, which had bowled over local competition the last few years, became the first Southwest Florida hoops team — boys or girls — to win a state title.

The Cougars played like champions, finishing 31-2. They remained undefeated against Florida opponents, their only two losses coming to out-of-state foes in the prestigious Naples Daily News Holiday Shootout, and defeated nationally-ranked Winter Haven to capture the Class 5A state title.

This past winter, Erin Zampell and the Barron Collier Cougars won the first state basketball title - boys or girls - in Southwest Florida history.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI, Daily News

This past winter, Erin Zampell and the Barron Collier Cougars won the first state basketball title - boys or girls - in Southwest Florida history.

The Cougars weren't alone in making the trip to Lakeland. Naples High, the last Collier girls basketball team to qualify for the state semis in 1988, reached this season's Class 4A state semifinals.

The spring season has long been fertile ground for local state championships and this season was no different.

The Barron Collier boys tennis team won its second straight Class 3A state title and the sixth straight for a Collier County boys team. Lely's Keith Embree ended his high school tennis career the best way possible, winning the Class 2A overall singles title and putting himself in the company of another Trojan, four-time state champion Jesse Witten.

Local track and field athletes kept the title parade going with two gold medals. Immokalee junior Lou'Tisha Hall won her second Class 2A state high jump title in three seasons, gaining gold this spring in Jacksonville. Hall fell to a disappointing sixth place in the event as a sophomore, but rebounded.

Hall said her three years in sports had a hand in that.

"I turned 17 and I did some growing up," she said after the high jump. "I used to pout when things didn't go well. But I've matured a lot. I keep my head up and let the past stay in the past."

Hall also finished second in the 300-meter hurdles and fourth in the 100 hurdles. One week later, Jones won another state title to match the one from the fall. The Estero phenom won the Class 3A 3,200 title.

Jones was caught from behind in the 1,600 and had to settle for silver. She wouldn't allow a repeat performance in the 3,200, winning by nearly 30 seconds.

Jones said the loss in the mile had her running angry, but her running style stayed the same.

"I really have the same strategy in any race," said Jones, who will attend North Carolina State. "I don't try to go out too hard because I know it will hurt me in the long run."

On top of all that gold, a couple of schools took important steps into varsity competition.

The South Fort Myers Wolfpack opened their doors this season and, along with the usual first-year bumps and bruises, made some very big moves very quickly. The girls basketball team, led by former Bishop Verot coach Bob Batson, finished its inaugural season at 22-5. One of those basketball players, freshman Madison Wagner, finished tied for fifth in the Class 2A 100-meter backstroke in the fall's state swimming championships.

Seacrest Country Day picked up its first state medal when eighth-grader Rachel Bowden placed eighth in the 300 hurdles.

Who knows? With continued work, those varsity neophytes could punch their tickets to state title paradise faster than expected.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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