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Girls Basketball: ECS survives late surge by Central Florida Christian for first state title

LAKELAND — The Evangelical Christian School girls basketball team did not lose often this year, but those losses were productive.

Head coach Dwayne Donnell described a tough team meeting last month after a heartbreaker that challenged his players. They were ultimately receptive, as they ripped off 13 consecutive wins, including Thursday’s Class 2A state title game against Central Florida Christian Academy.

The Sentinels sprinted out of the gate and survived a gut check in the second half to conquer the Eagles 57-46 at RP Funding Center in Lakeland.

“It’s a phenomenal testament to how these kids worked all year, how they gelled all year and, man, I don’t really want this year to end because this was almost the perfect team to win a state championship,” Donnell said.

More: Girls basketball: ECS to play for first state title after downing University Christian

The win secured the first state championship in program history at ECS – 12 years on from Donnell’s first state championship with Dunbar, the first in Lee County history.

“I’m so proud and happy for these young ladies,” he said. “I’m so happy for our school. I’m so happy for our community. I’m so happy to tell you that God is a part of all of this. I’m just super elated the way we played.”

The Sentinels have turned fast starts into a habit, and the team proved they were not overawed by the high stakes once again.

Playing tenacious defense as senior Jadah Toombs collected steals, the team converted their opportunities as it ended the first quarter with a 21-6 lead. Senior Zaira Mitchell scored a quick 7 points.

"It is great to put people on their heels like that, and it’s difficult to climb out of that," said Donnell, who donned a red bowtie and white jacket.

ECS maintained their supremacy as they extended their lead as wide as 18 points early in the third quarter. However, the Eagles were prepared to give it their all.

Central Florida Christian outscored ECS 19-9 in the third quarter and continued that form into the fourth as they attacked the paint and drew numerous fouls.

Valeria Munoz hit a jumper with less than 5 minutes left to bring the Eagles within 5 at 46-41.

“I just felt like our offense got stagnant at times,” Central Florida head coach Tommie Butts said. “The girls started moving the ball in the third quarter, and we started attacking the paint, getting to the paint a lot more, getting to the free throw line.”

The ECS girls basketball team won the Class 2A state title, defeating Central Florida Christian Academy 57-46 on February 29, 2024 at RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
The ECS girls basketball team won the Class 2A state title, defeating Central Florida Christian Academy 57-46 on February 29, 2024 at RP Funding Center in Lakeland.

At that moment, the Sentinels were struggling with an injury to starter Kellisia Grant and foul trouble as Mitchell spent stretches on the bench.

“I’m going to have to dispose of this pair of underwear I have on me,” Donnell joked to giggles from his players.

From that point on, ECS played polished basketball, drawing fouls and making the Eagles pay at the charity stripe. Nalah Smith, Aileen Warchol, and Hayden Hendrix all contributed key minutes off the bench for ECS.

Central Florida’s Janiya Swift, who led all players with 16 points, and Trinity Harden both fouled out in the game’s final minutes.

“We were in a situation that we were not prepared for, but they responded and I think every time I asked them to do something, in that moment, they were comfortable and I was able to comfort them, even though it was not good,” Donnell said. “It was a bad period, and they couldn’t see their coach distressed."

Junior Maddie O’Berski led the Sentinels with 15 points, including a pair of buzzer-beaters.

O’Berski described those moments as part of a process this season to trust herself in big moments.

“It was full recognition of, dang, I’ve put so much work in,” she said. “It’s time to go and just play, so this game was just going and playing my game and just relaxing and knowing I’m going to take this shot because I’ve shot it hundreds of times before, and then God’s got the rest.”

Toombs, who scored more than 1,500 points in her high school career at Gateway Charter, Fort Myers, and ECS, finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 assists.

Donnell described her steadiness at point guard as crucial to the team’s success.

“It’s extremely comforting as a coach to not have to worry about the ball,” he said.

The ECS girls basketball team won the Class 2A state title, defeating Central Florida Christian Academy 57-46 on February 29, 2024 at RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
The ECS girls basketball team won the Class 2A state title, defeating Central Florida Christian Academy 57-46 on February 29, 2024 at RP Funding Center in Lakeland.

Along with Toombs, the game allowed Mitchell to finish her high school career on top. The Rollins College signee scored 12 points, along with 9 rebounds.

“I never thought we would be here when I first came to ECS and we’re here now, and I just thank God,” she said. “I just praise him for everything.”

The Sentinels were boosted by their fans who traveled to Lakeland and let the arena know it.

“I can’t wait to get to school,” Donnell said. “I’m hugging everybody.”

The joyousness was evident among Donnell and his players, who joined in team chants and a hymn after the victory. That cohesiveness was critical to the Sentinel's prowess this year.

“My mind right now, I can’t even tell you what’s going through it,” Toombs said. “It’s like rainbows and cotton candy.”

It took hard work – and an ambitious move when Donnell left Dunbar for ECS three years ago – to get the glory.

“I think each of them, if you look at their bodies, look at their hair, look at the sweat, look at their clothes, look at the stress on their bodies, they left everything they had on that floor and they were rewarded for that effort tonight to be a state champion,” Donnell said.

Evangelical Christian School State Championship Roster

Lanie Conley

Olivia DeLeon

Kellisia Grant

Amiyah Green

Hayden Hendrix

Layla Malbranche

Areille Marc

Zaira Mitchell

Maddie O'Berski

Nalah Smith

Abbigail Thompson

Jadah Toombs

Moriah Walker

Aileen Warchol

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Girls Basketball: ECS takes care of Central Florida Christian to earn first state title