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Okeechobee girls off to strong start

OKEECHOBEE — The team’s record tells a lot about the drastic improvement in Okeechobee High School’s girls basketball this season, but there’s more to the Brahmans’ success than just numbers.

Before the season was even nine games old, the Brahmans had already won seven games, eclipsing their victory total from a year ago (6). They reached the end of December with an 11-4 record.

So how has a squad chock full of freshmen and sophomores made such a big turnaround?

“We’re doing better than last year, so we’re making progress,” said guard Adryauna Baker, one of three Seminoles on the varsity squad. “Last year we didn’t have as much chemistry as we do now. Everyone has really matured enough to show that they can work together without having issues.”

The team’s good play might be a shocker to many, but not to Okeechobee coach Jovanny Torres. He said the team’s hard work in the offseason is paying off.

“I’m not surprised. We’ve been working our butts off the whole summer and the fall. We played travel ball in the spring and then over the summer we went to a bunch of camps. We went UCF, Florida SouthWestern,” he said.

Baker, a versatile 5-foot-8 guard who contributes in just about every facet including being the team’s leading rebounder, has played a significant role in the fast start.

Despite being a sophomore, she was selected as a captain, a role that she takes seriously.

“It’s kind of a lot of pressure because you have to set a good example for everybody and be a role model and you can’t just let everything slide. Sometimes they’re not going to like you because you’re setting them straight, but it’s what you have to face by being a captain,” she said.

Okeechobee sophomore guard Adryauna Baker, shown here in a game last season, is leading the Brahmans’ girls team in several categories, including assists, rebounds and blocks. (Photo Kevin Johnson)

Baker has excelled in leading by example on and off the court.

“Adryauna is great,” Torres said. “She does all the little things. She rebounds, she pushes the tempo. She’s not leading the team in scoring only because she gets the rebound and she pushes the tempo and getting people wide open by causing so much attention. That’s helping other players get open. When she drives the lane, everyone collapses, so she’s kicking it out and making an extra pass.”

Torres said Baker is a far more mature player than a year ago.

“She’s getting everyone to play together,” he said. “When things go wrong, she takes them to the side and talks to them. She’s like a coach on the court. She’s come such a long way from last year. She used to pout and complain about stuff, but this year she’s stepped into that leadership spot. I’m so proud of her.”

During the summer, Baker received a boost of confidence thanks to her strong showing at a Tony Perkins basketball showcase. She was among the select standouts out of hundreds of players.

“We got great feedback on her,” Torres said. “Tony Perkins had nothing but great things to say about her. He only blogs about certain girls. They’ll be about 400 girls there and he’ll blog about 20 and she was at the top of the list. He called me. He said, ‘I have girl here’ – he couldn’t pronounce her first name – ‘last name Baker.’”

The camp helped Baker get her name out beyond the Brighton Reservation and Okeechobee, but it also opened her eyes to the importance of doing a good job representing Indian Country.

“It showed me how rare a Native American basketball player is. I think I was the only Native American there out of a lot of girls. It showed me how us Native Americans, if we have an opportunity we have to take it,” she said.

Baker leads the team in rebounds (6.6), assists (3.3) and blocks (1.3) and is second in scoring (8.3) behind Alkeecia Clayton. Baker has scored in double digits six times, including a season-high 15 points in a win against Port St. Lucie.

On Dec. 12, she recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds in a win against Sebring. Four days later she scored 14 points in a win against Moore Haven and her uncle Preston Baker, who coaches the Terriers.

In addition to Baker, Tribal members Julia Smith, a senior, and Caylie Huff, a sophomore, also play on the team. Smith is one of only two seniors on the team. She’s returned to the team after a couple years off.

“Julia is doing great,” Torres said. “She took two years off, so she’s kind of rusty, but she’s stepped in. At beginning of the season she was struggling, trying to get back into shape, but last two games she’s started. She’s playing great defense.”

Huff has been up and down between the varsity and JV. Although she hasn’t received a lot of playing time on varsity, it seems to be just a matter of time before she starts to make an impact.

“Caylie has definitely come a long way. She’s not getting a lot of playing time on varsity, so she plays on JV sometimes to get playing time. She’s definitely the best player on JV,” Torres said.

Okeechobee has its sights set on keeping the momentum going for the rest of the regular season and into the postseason.

“One of our goals is to win district and to work on our defense because defense wins games and offense just attracts the crowd,” Baker said.

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