In building the girls basketball program at First Baptist, Jen Lines borrowed a play from two of Collier County's most successful coaches.
Barron Collier's Mike Hamburg and Community School's Mitch Woods have won four state championships combined the past seven seasons because they aren't afraid to test their teams. The Cougars and Seahawks play some of the top teams in the state, even the country, o get ready for the playoffs.
After First Baptist lost in last year's regional finals, Lines wanted to make sure the Lions were battle-tested come this postseason. The Lions loaded their schedule with playoff teams in order to be prepared for Saturday night's return trip to a Class 2A regional championship.
"We played a really competitive regular-season schedule," Lines said. "We did that intentionally with the hope of getting to this game. We wanted to prepare ourselves as well as we could, and I'm confident we've done that."
First Baptist (18-11) faces the same Boca Raton-Grandview Prep team it lost to in last year's regional final. The Pride (24-2) feature 6-foot-4 powerhouse Vionise Pierre-Louis and dynamic guard Neydja PetitHomme (23.2 points per game).
Last year Grandview Prep stunned the Lions early with their athleticism. The Pride built a big lead, but First Baptist stuck around before losing by 10.
To prepare for the Pride's size and speed, the Lions went through a grueling stretch in December that included games against five eventual playoff teams and two national powers. First Baptist played in the Seffner Christian Tournament and the Naples Holiday Shootout. In three Shootout games, the Lions faced seven players committed to Division I colleges.
The Lions went 1-7 during that stretch, though the lone victory came against 6A regional finalist Barron Collier.
"We knew we would take a beating against national and statewide talent," Lines said. "Our girls wanted that challenge. What we did over Christmas was great practice for us to play at (Grandview Prep's) talent level."
As First Baptist stepped up in competition this season, Barron Collier and Community School once again took on all challengers. And once again, both North Naples teams are in the regional finals.
Barron Collier (16-13) has a tall task ahead of it. The Cougars play at Miami-Norland (28-3) and face the Vikings' front line of three 6-footers. Barron has just one player taller than 5-9.
Anticipating the road to the 6A semifinals in Lakeland would go through Norland, the Cougars' coach scheduled a regular-season game on the Vikings' court to prepare his team. It wasn't pretty — a 60-23 loss — but Hamburg said it was valuable experience.
"Everybody should have realized Norland is the best team in our region, so why not schedule them at their place?" said Hamburg, who led the Cougars to state titles in 2006 and 2008. "The first time we played them I think we were a little intimidated. Hopefully that intimidation is gone because we've already played there."
Community School has won four straight regional titles, but the Seahawks didn't rest easy when creating their schedule. They played 11 games against eventual playoff teams this season, and faced two Kentucky powers in the Queen of the Palms tournament in December.
Facing a Clearwater-Calvary Christian team that has lost just three games (24-3) in the 3A regional finals, Coach Woods is confident the Seahawks (24-5) are ready.
"Playing against speed and teams that can push us to the limit gives us a real picture of where we're at," said Woods, who won state in 2009 and 2011. "We don't like getting puffed up with a real (easy) schedule and not being able to back it up.
"If we execute our game plan, we should be making another trip to Lakeland."