Add defense to the list of things that Ponte Vedra girls basketball coach Jessica Spencer-Gardner is thankful for.
"That [emphasis on defense] comes from [former University of Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt," she said. "That was her philosophy, and that's mine, too."
With clutch defense and winning shots, Ponte Vedra and Oakleaf achieved two of the season's early girls hoops highlights in barely an hour's time during the three-day Insider Exposure Thanksgiving Classic, held at Bolles and San Jose Prep.
Ponte Vedra tipped the balance at the end of a back-and-forth matchup against Valor Christian, winning 52-50 in overtime. Junior guard Morgan Gavazzi sank the winning free throws with 13 seconds left in the extra session.
The Sharks (3-1) needed to work hard just to reach overtime. They survived a wild finish in regulation, with Gavazzi's 3-pointer tying the score to force the extra session. Then, in overtime, her composure from the free-throw line sealed the win, after Kennedy Rosendahl brought the Sharks back from behind with a steal and then a 3-pointer at the 1:17 mark.
"I told the girls that they really needed to play the best defense of their life in those moments," Spencer-Gardner said. "We know that defense wins championships, and today it won us a very close overtime game."
One hour earlier, it was 2021 state semifinalist Oakleaf pulling off a thriller of its own against Daytona Beach Mainland. The Knights trailed by five points with 1:40 to go, but rallied for the victory, 43-42.
"We got down early, but we just kept chopping," Oakleaf coach Fred Cole said.
Senior guard Kaylah Turner scored four quick points after a steal and a basket in transition, and sophomore Trista Brown nailed the game-winner with 15 seconds to go. Oakleaf's defense stifled Mainland on its last four possessions to wrap up the victory.
Senior forward Fantasia James led the way with 20 points and Turner added 10 for Oakleaf, off to a strong start at 4-1. The Knights defeated Westside and Creekside later in the week, surpassing 75 points in both games.
The annual showcase tournament highlighted top prospects from dozens of high school girls basketball teams from Florida and beyond, including reigning state champions and multiple recruits ranked in the ESPN top 100.
"They bring in good teams and they do a good job of kind of matching up the teams to what you are talent-wise or maybe even a little better," Cole said. "That's why I like coming."
'Dreams come true': Grayson Howard celebrates All American honors, historic career at Jackson
Sunshine State's best: Jillian Candelino, Bernie Berania win 2022 Florida high school cross country awards
Middleburg highlights Clay football list
Clay County's lone postseason qualifier in football, Middleburg wrapped up its playoff season with five selections to the All-Clay County first-team roster on the gridiron.
Broncos senior T.J. Lane earned a first-team berth at running back after his 1,986-yard season, along with offensive lineman Landen Padgett, defensive lineman Demarion Suggs, linebacker Austin Cruce and defensive athlete Kristian Russell.
Oakleaf led the county with eight first-teamers in quarterback Drew Ammon, athlete Carlos Witherup, wide receiver Taylor Bradshaw, tight end Isaiah Shevchook, offensive lineman Jordan Mitchell, linebacker Dajon Brown, cornerback Bryson Keitt and safety Drake Stubbs.
Fleming Island's first-team selections were running back Samuel Singleton, offensive linemen T.J. Lawrence and Ethan Williams, defensive end Jhace Edwards, linebacker Abram Wright and punter Kaan Jumani.
Orange Park placed offensive lineman Roderick Kearney, defensive lineman Braylon Hawkins and cornerback Decarris Jacobs on the first team. Clay first-teamers were receiver Payton Dykas and safety D.J. Williams, while Ridgeview placed defensive lineman J.J. Moore and kicker Kaleb Robison on the first squad.
The second-team offense was made up of quarterback Cibastian Broughton (Fleming Island); running backs Devin Outlaw (Oakleaf) and JoJo Restall (Orange Park); wide receivers Trace Burney (Fleming Island) and Nolan Chambers (Orange Park); tight end Dakota Rowe (Fleming Island); offensive athlete Rayhn Hutchinson (Ridgeview); offensive linemen Jaylen Booker (Middleburg), Krishawn Sanders (Oakleaf) and Braden Cunningham, Ethan Hoffstetter and Michael Zeray (all Fleming Island).
The second-team defense was defensive linemen Braden Cole and Prince Savea (both Oakleaf), Khalil Matthews (Fleming Island) and Bryan Prince (Clay); linebackers Jaiden Hicks (Oakleaf), Tyler Jackson (Orange Park) and Jhoel Robinson (Fleming Island); defensive backs Errick Fryer (Middleburg), Darrion Grady (Keystone Heights), Orlando Jackson (Orange Park) and Devante Lewis (Fleming Island); and specialists Ethan Bellemare and Alex Weiss (both Clay).
Bulldogs jump for joy: Bolles jump pass tops Raines, extends final four football streak
30 years in the making: UC downs Trinity Christian for Region 1-1M crown, advances to final four
Panthers trio on county v-ball list
After advancing to the regional final a month ago, Ridgeview earned a county-high three first-team selections to the Clay County All-County volleyball team.
Middle blocker Haley Robinson, whose .713 hitting percentage ranked among Florida's leaders, received first-team recognition along with Panthers setter Mariah Bostic-Jones and libero Kasey Casiple.
Joining them on the first team were Clay's Aubri Martin, Fleming Island's Rauly Eason and the Middleburg attack pair of Brooke Forkum and Connor Rahn.
Second-team choices were Fleming Island's Samantha Rupert, Keystone Heights' Riley Barry and Kori Jennings, Middleburg's Morgan Padgett, Oakleaf's Lailah Hester, Orange Park's Ryanne Robinson and Ridgeview's Bri Adams.
Golden Eagles lead Clay County golf
Fleming Island headlined the All-County golf squads for Clay County, selected the coaches across the county.
The Golden Eagles' Tyler Mawhinney, Colton Swartz, Jaylen Abbas and Ryan Houck led the boys first team along with Middleburg's Chase Carroll. The girls first team included three Fleming Island selections in Alyzabeth Morgan, Kaila Polete and Chloe Blanc, joining Clay's Taylor Young and Keystone Heights' Candace Jackson.
The boys second team included Fleming Island's Dylan Frein and Emmet Kuhlenkamp, Keystone's Alex Addington, Middleburg's Lucas Wahlstrom and Orange Park's Brock Buhnerkemper.
On the girls golf second team were Cambree Hodge and Kathryn McNeil from Fleming Island, Neva Winslow from Middleburg and Emily Acosta and Emma Farrar from Oakleaf.
Fleming Island dominates cross country list
Twelve of Clay County's All-County cross country first team selections came from Fleming Island, finishing an excellent year for the Golden Eagles on the 5-kilometer course.
Graham Myers, John Keester IV, Danny Sakowski, Jacob Campbell, Andrew Boyer and Roman Mollicone represented Fleming Island on the boys first team, which also includes Ridgeview's Julio Rodriguez.
On the girls first team, Oakleaf's Sierra Barrera headed the pack with the Fleming Island group of Katie Thompson, Reese Scott, Allie Knotts, Brooke Reynolds, Marlea Feld and Sydney Fallin.
The boys second team was Noah Looney, Clay; Cole Atzert and Luke Melson, both Fleming Island; Tyler Griffin, Keystone Heights; Logan Moore, Middleburg; and Grant Keppel and Duane Lee, both Oakleaf.
On the girls second team were Clay's Kaygen Williamson, Fleming Island's Chloe Bourre and Carissa Miller, Middleburg's Molly Burt, Oakleaf's Tiffany Cox and Morgan Wade and Ridgeview's Emory Thomas.
Champions McDade, Brinkman lead swimming honors
Fleming Island state champion diver Ava Brinkman and sprinter Maryn McDade, who won her second straight Florida High School Athletic Association girls Class 3A championship last month, headed Clay County's All-County swimming team.
Brinkman was selected as top diver and McDade won first-team honors in the girls 50 free and the 100 free, along with Fleming Island teammates Dylan Ducut (boys 100 fly), David Goodwin (boys 200 free and 100 back) and Elizabeth Loehr (girls 500 free).
Orange Park first-teamers were Kaden Danninger (boys 100 free and 200 IM), Gavin Dobson (boys 500 free) and Sebastian Lopez (boys 50 free and 100 breast).
Oakleaf also earned four first-team selections in Delicia Coleman (girls 200 IM), Alexis Huxohl (girls 100 back), Peyton Loving (girls 100 breast) and Olivia Votava (girls 100 fly and 200 free).
Clay's Logan Siebold won the county's top honor in boys diving. Fleming Island, Oakleaf and Orange Park each won two first-team awards in relays.
Bolles hits road in Carolina
Bolles missed the top of the regional podium, but came home with a pair of top-10 finishes against a fast field at Saturday's Nike Cross Regionals Southeast at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
The Bolles girls placed sixth in the team standings, led by senior state champion Jillian Candelino in 14th place at 18:04.8. Candelino won the Florida Dairy Farmers Miss Cross Country award on Monday.
In the boys race, Bolles finished seventh, with Aidan Ryan crossing the line seventh in 15:16.7.
Last month, Bolles swept the Florida High School Athletic Association team and individual championships for both boys and girls in Class 2A.
Bears grad Hutchinson a Biletnikoff finalist
The honors keep mounting for former Bartram Trail wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson.
Now in his redshirt senior year at Iowa State, Hutchinson was named last week as one of 12 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the top wide receiver in college football.
So far in 2022, Hutchinson has caught 107 passes for 1,171 yards this season, leading the nation in receptions and placing seventh in receiving yards across NCAA Division I.
He earned first-team All-Big 12 recognition in both 2020 and 2021 with the Cyclones.
Hoops milestones for Beachside, Covenant
Even in a light week of activity for the winter sports season, the basketball court was the site of highlights over the past week for schools large and small.
Among the achievements of note:
In St. Johns County, Beachside achieved its first-ever victories in boys basketball as the boys team topped Beaches Chapel 78-23. The Beachside girls jumped out to a 3-0 start, winning 56-19 against Baldwin on Nov. 21.
Third-year boys hoops program Global Outreach Charter Academy picked up one of its biggest victories to date, defeating Trinity Christian 61-52 on Tuesday. Josue Rivera (21 points) and Jason Martinez (17 points) led the scoring for the Kodiaks, who sealed the win late thanks to 12 boards from Deshawn Citizen and key late layups from Justin Ambrosiani and Camilo Sanchez. Global Outreach went 8-3 in 2021-22 against a mostly independent schedule.
Among the early contenders for high scoring honors in area girls hoops is Covenant School's Jacquelyn Barnes. The junior is averaging 21.8 points per game and tallied 22 Tuesday as the Warriors beat Yulee 47-29, the team's first-ever victory against a public school.
Harvest Community rallied with 18 points in the fourth quarter Monday to beat University Christian 55-50, the Warriors' first boys hoops win over UC since 2016. Isaiah Bunso and Adam Lawson scored 12 apiece.
At the Jackie Simmons Thanksgiving Classic held at Jackson, Fleming Island continued an unbeaten start in boys hoops, winning 53-38 over Bishop Snyder. Ethan Williams picked up a double-double for the Golden Eagles.
Keep an eye on NFEI. The Eagles' boys team, a state semifinalist last year, opened with a pair of quality win, 72-69 over Tampa Catholic and 75-72 in overtime on Monday night against an independent Potter's House team that's loaded with talent.
Around the area
Columbia defensive lineman Rashod Bradley de-committed from Miami of Ohio football. ... Bishop Snyder senior Matthew French committed to Flagler men's golf. ... Nease senior attacker Kalani Laughlin committed to Virginia State men's lacrosse. ... Trinity Christian junior infielder Hannah Rivers committed to Mercer softball. ... Yulee senior Ashley Hall signed with Tusculum beach volleyball. ... Ponte Vedra middle blocker Zeta Washington was named to the Prep Volleyball 2022 All-Tournament fall season team, one of four middles selected nationwide. ... Harvest Community wide receiver Kahlan Davis and Bishop Snyder safety Jordan Williams were selected to the Sunshine State Athletic Conference All-North team for football. ... Former Paxon forward Isaiah Adams scored a career-high 24 points for Buffalo men's basketball. ... Former Episcopal guard Mark Flakus hit his first 3-pointer in college basketball at Kentucky's Rupp Arena in the University of North Florida's loss to the Wildcats. ... Former Sandalwood quarterback Jeff Sims, now at Georgia Tech, announced his plans to enter the transfer portal. ... Former Menendez kicker Estin Thiele announced his plans to transfer from Valdosta State football. ...The Florida High School Athletic Association's Sprouts Farmers Market Spirit Competition, an annual showcase for school spirit, remains open for entries through Feb. 1. Schools entering must submit a video ranging from 90 seconds to three minutes in length.
Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: First Coast Varsity Weekly: Wild finishes at Insider Exposure girls basketball