JENSEN BEACH – After Okeechobee High School girls basketball coach Jovanny Torres handed the district championship trophy to his players, it seemed as if everyone wanted to touch it.
Who could blame them?
Throughout its long history, the program hasn’t exactly filled up trophy cases. Nobody could remember the Brahmans winning a district title, at least not in the past quarter century or so. So the players basked in a spotlight they earned by walloping Fort Pierce’s Westwood Academy, 50-13, in the Class 5A-District 13 championship Feb. 5 in front of about 100 mask-wearing spectators at Jensen Beach High School.
After receiving the championship trophy from Torres, the players swarmed around it and took plenty of photos amid friends and family.
For the second year in a row, Okeechobee (12-3) advances to the regional tournament where it will host Northeast (Oakland Park) in a 5A-Region 4 quarterfinal Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. The winner moves on to the regional semifinals Feb. 16.
Hoisting the district trophy served as further proof of the stunning turnaround in a program that has existed for generations without attaining much notoriety.
“It means a lot to me, but more so for the community, the town,” said Torres, who is in his third season as the team’s head coach.
The championship marks another achievement in the team’s rapid ascension under Torres, who is also athletic director at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School on the Brighton Reservation. Last season the Brahmans won a team-record 20 games and reached the regional tournament for the first time after a 31-year absence.
“For us to come and change that and not only get the No. 1 (district) seed and bring home a district title I couldn’t be more proud of my girls,” Torres said.
Okeechobee, which includes the Seminole Tribe trio of Adryauna Baker and sisters Caylie and Haylie Huff, made sure the title game was never close. The Brahmans led 15-5 after the first quarter, keyed in part by four points from Baker, who was also a force on the boards and at forcing turnovers. The lead ballooned to 33-11 at halftime.
Jasmine Shanks scored 12 of her game-high 16 points in the first half. The Brahmans also received a boost on a pair of 3’s from Leta Adamo in the first half.
Baker and Haylie Huff each finished with four points. Defensively, they made their presence felt in the paint. Baker, a junior, snagged a game-high seven rebounds to match her season high. She also contributed with three steals, two assists and a block. Huff, a senior who had a career-high five rebounds in a district semifinal win against Boynton Beach, had two rebounds and excelled at making it difficult for Westwood players to get solid position near the basket. Caylie Huff, the team’s only other senior, entered the game in the fourth quarter and finished with a couple assists.
From tip to the final buzzer, Okeechobee’s half-court press defense never relented. Westwood, which was held to just two points in the second half, struggled to get clean looks without an Okeechobee hand or body in their way. It was a far crisper performance from Okeechobee than in the teams’ regular season meeting which Westwood won, 38-37.
Torres praised his players for their hard work in practice leading up to the championship.
“When we first played them, we had a lot of turnovers,” Torres said. “We weren’t trusting our teammates, so I forced them to do some team bonding stuff, and the chemistry was great today. They were making all kinds of passes.”
After losing only two seniors from last season’s team, Okeechobee figured it would be in the thick of the chase for a district title this season. Like a puzzle, the pieces were in place; they just needed to be connected.
“We knew we needed a little bit of work on our team chemistry, but we got the hang of it as we went along,” Baker said.
“Talking to each other and working out our problems, that’s how we came together,” Haylie Huff said.
Players describe Torres’ practices as tough, but fair.
“He’s a really good mentor,” Baker said. “He pushes us to our limits. We’re thankful for him.”
On a night when it was all Okeechobee, Torres said it’s the players who deserve the praise.
“I gave them the game plan, but they’re the ones who came out and did it. I couldn’t be any more proud,” he said.