After securing a district title Friday night against a plucky Port St. Joe Tiger Shark squad, the Franklin County Seahawks, with an 18-7 record and ranked 16th in Class 1A statewide, travel to Blountstown Thursday night, Feb. 16 to take on the Tigers in the regional semifinals.
The Tigers secured the home court by being ranked four steps higher in the state based on a formula hammered out by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
The 48-43 win by the Seahawks to secure the Class 1A District 4 title was powered by senior Jaidyn Rhodes’ 15 points, who shot 57 percent from the field, and nailed seven of his eight free throw shots.
“Jaidyn played one of his best games of his career,” said coach Ray Bailey. “He was locked in from the start of this week.”
Rhodes’ output was followed closely by 13 points from junior Ethan Kembro, who nailed all four of his tries from the charity stripe. Eighth grader Sadiq Jones added 11, hitting two of his four three-point tries and three of six free throws. Senior Owen Poloronis rounded out the scoring with nine points, sinking two of his four three-point tries, and three of four from the charity stripe.
In all the Seahawks downed 17 of 22 from the free throw line, which at 77 percent is significantly better than the team’s 62 percent average from the charity stripe for the season. “Our free throw shooting was the game,” said Bailey.
The Seahawks opened a 16-11 lead after the first quarter, but a strong St. Joe second quarter put the Tiger Sharks ahead 27-26 going into the locker room at the half.
“We went on a run but then started turning the ball over and ended up going into halftime down one,” said the coach.
The Seahawks opened the third with a 13-4 streak, putting them up 39-31, but the Tiger Sharks cut it to 39-33 going into the final stanza.
Port St. Joe refused to give up, and with four-and-a-half minutes left in the game, the Seahawks clung to a slim 42-40 lead.
But with eight free throws drained in the final stanza, the Seahawks kept their cool the rest of the way and held on the win.
“It was a back-and-forth, all-night dogfight, what you would expect in a rivalry game,” said Bailey, upset that the Seahawks’ 13 made shots from the field, and five from outside the arc, were nearly eclipsed by the team’s 16 turnovers.
“We escaped,” he said. “We was lucky.”
On defense, the Seahawks were led by Kembro’s eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks, followed by Poloronis’ seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block.
Senior Ta’shawn Jones, back after being sidelined with a high ankle sprain, also had seven rebounds.
“His first half was jittery, he was not comfortable on the ankle,” said Bailey. “Late in the fourth, he grabbed a couple defensive rebounds where he had to jump, and got confidence after that.”
The coach also had praise for sophomore Ajaylen McNair’s play in wearing down the Port St. Joe point guard. “He played great defense,” said Bailey. “He did everything we asked him to do.”
Now in his third season, Bailey has so far posted his best season record, now at 18-7, and his second district title, and first undefeated season in district play.
Being seeded third in the region, behind top-seeded Sneads, which won only one district playoff game, and ahead of Cottondale, has chafed the coach, since it has meant that even as a district champ, Franklin County has had to relinquish home court advantage.
“The FHSAA has made the districts irrelevant,” Bailey said. “But these are the cards we’ve been dealt and we’re going to roll with it, and control the controllables.”
The Seahawks lost 52-49 to Blountstown in Calhoun County Jan. 3, but came back to trounce them at the Nest 69-53 on Jan. 17.
“I’m not upset at who we’re playing,” said Bailey. “We’re familiar with them, and one of their key players is out for the rest of the year. We match up great against them.”
The coach said he’s confident that just as Kembro resumed his top form a few weeks ago after a brief slump, two of the team’s top seniors will prove their mettle as the playoffs now enter the “one and done” phase.
“I think right now, (Jones) is at about 70-75 percent,” Bailey said, noting that he hasn’t discouraged him from taking shots. “He’s not comfortable shooting, he doesn’t want to force it, but that’s his decision.
“Owen worked his butt off all summer,” he said. “It’ll show back up.”