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Small roster, big effort for Ahfachkee boys in basketball season opener

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Ahfachkee center Troy Cantu battles for a ball Dec. 1 against Donahue Academy at the Herman L. Osceola Gymnasium.

BIG CYPRESS — The young lungs that belong to the energetic Ahfachkee School cheerleading squad did not quit. Neither did the five players they cheered for on opening night of the boys basketball season.

Despite playing with no substitutes, Ahfachkee enjoyed a productive offensive night Dec. 1 in a 79-41 loss to Ave Maria’s Donahue Academy.

“They did way better than last year,” said Ahfachkee coach O’Bryan White. “We put up 40 points this year. I don’t think we had a total of more than 40 points for the whole season last year.”

Unlike last year when it belonged to a district, Ahfachkee is playing as an independent with an abbreviated schedule that includes two games each against Donahue and Everglades City. Ahfachkee does not have a girls team this season.

Under the guidance of Cynthia Wilkes, 11 cheerleaders from grades one through four provided ample vocal support from the bleachers with a “We Will Rock You” chant and other tunes. They screamed when Ahfachkee made baskets and cringed when Donahue scored. In a corner concession stand, Horacio Smith’s hot dogs proved to be a popular choice for spectators.

On the court, Ahfachkee’s small team and short four-game season started on a positive note in the first quarter. Sixty seconds into the game, eighth-grade guard Ricky Garza dished a nifty pass to Ethan Balentine, who made a layup for the first points of the season.

Ricky sank a free throw that gave Ahfachkee a 3-0 lead.

The Ethan-Ricky connection was just getting warmed up. They shared point guard and shooting guard duties. The result: a combined 28 points, with Ethan’s 16 leading the squad. Ricky’s 12 points included a pair of 3-pointers for a team that almost didn’t have enough players to field a squad this season.

“I’m glad we have a team,” Ricky said.

White said initially nine players came out for the team, but the number dwindled to five because of transfers and grades. No seniors are on the roster.

Ahfachkee also received a big night from 3-point sharpshooter Graysun Billie, whose hot hand from beyond the arc resulted in a trio of 3s.

“He loves the corner,” White said.

Troy Cantu, a 6-foot-1 center who is still growing, scored four points and battled Donahue’s big players all night in the paint along with assistance from Elijah Billie. While Donahue had four substitutes to give its starters breathers, Ahfachkee’s vacant bench meant all five players played the entire 32 minutes.

“It’s tough with five players,” Elijah said, “but we did pretty good.”

“Hard, tiring. No one to switch out with,” said Troy, who opted to play basketball this year after the golf season never started in the fall. “They didn’t have golf this year because there was no coach, so I decided to play this.”

A pair of free throws late in the first quarter from Ethan knotted the game at 10-10 before Donahue shifted into a higher gear and reeled off 13 consecutive points behind a well-executed press that gave Ahfachkee inbound headaches.

“Their press is pretty good. I got tired because I kept running everywhere,” Ricky said.

Before halftime, a coast-to-coast layup from Ethan brought Ahfachkee to within nine points at 34-25, but Donahue went on another surge to go up 45-25 at the break. The visitors from Collier County maintained a comfortable lead throughout the second half.

Even with the score out of reach, Ahfachkee continued to fight for rebounds and loose balls, right up to the waning seconds as Ethan and Troy made sure Donahue wouldn’t depart with any easy points in the paint.

A decent scoring performance and playing a full game with determination left a good opening-night impression on White.

“They put a lot of effort in,” said White, whose team’s only other home game is scheduled for Jan. 14. “They surprised me, to be honest, because they don’t hustle like that at practice.”

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