FLEMING ISLAND - In a unique situation where arguably the two best boys basketball players were practicing in the same gym each day; Oakleaf High School's dynamic duo of Nassir Little and Jonathan …
FLEMING ISLAND - In a unique situation where arguably the two best boys basketball players were practicing in the same gym each day; Oakleaf High School's dynamic duo of Nassir Little and Jonathan Bryant, it was Bryant's late season thrusts that pushed the Knights into a first-ever district championship win and earned him the Clay Today All County boys basketball player of the year.
"They both played terrific, were counted on to lead both physically with stats, and emotionally and mentally as leaders," said Oakleaf High coach Jason Price, who gets both player back next year with Little a sophomore and Bryant just a junior. "The expectations were high and I think they met or exceeded those expectations and had tremendous seasons both individually and as one of the best duos in the state."
Bryant's prowess in the final stretch for Price included a January slate of points of 31, 28, 26 and 40 that kept the Knights fighting for the coveted district title opportunity. Little and Bryant were both defensed hard by all opponents, but Bryant shined in the clutch with his soft three pointers and slashing inside drives drawing out defenses and creating openings for his teammates.
For the year, Bryant finished with an 18.8 points per game average to set a school record. Bryant hit 34 three point shots and shot 50 percent from the field to score 490 total points, also a school record. His 40 points against Buchholz in a key district 4-7A game was a school record and his three games with 30-plus points also is a school record. Bryant's ability to score big against big opponents included 31 points against Creekside in their district championship win, 25 points in a December win over Miami Southwestern and 28 points in a win over 8A-Sandalwood in January.
For the girls, Orange Park High senior Gianni Ruemmeley carried the Lady Raiders from a dismal season start to a near-miraculous finish as close as three points at halftime against eventual state champion Ribault in their region semifinal and thus earned her the Clay Today All County girls basketball player of the year.
The Lady Raiders opened 2016 with a relatively quiet five wins and five losses with coach Mandi Matricardi attempting to keep her athletically savvy senior threesome of Ruemmeley, Maxine Knox (a Clay Today second teamer) and Shakarri Mack (a Clay Today first teamer) on point while nurturing the rest of her young team to believing a turnaround was imminent. In a gym-class shootout between Ruemmeley and Matricardi, Matricardi noted that the season turnaround fell squarely on Ruemmeley's shoulders.
"We live and die by her energy," said Matricardi. "If she gets it in her mind to be unstoppable, she can be. Her energy then gets around to everyone else on the team and then I just let them go. It's nerve-wracking sometimes."
After a one point win over district rival Wolfson in December and a hard-fought 39-30 loss to eventual Class 2A runnerup University Christian 10 days later, Matricardi felt something click.
"That University game was the game that turned the switch for Gianni and the rest of the team because they were a great team that we battled with," said Matricardi. "Then Gianni took over."
Six wins later and two months afterward, the Lady Raiders won the district title over Westside, beat defending state runnerup Paxon in their region opener then faced off with eventual state champion Ribault in the region semifinal.
"She punched up as hard as she could and we were up 8-4 at the first quarter," said Matricardi, after the Raiders eventually lost a 58-27 decision with Ribault shutting down all corners of the court. "Most of the time she was the best player in the gym. She single handedly made us better and helped us win. And against Ribault she was the only player that did anything and didn't back down. She just couldn't do it by herself."
Ruemmeley finished her senior campaign with a 15 points per game average, four assists per game and three steals per game with a stretch of games including 30 points against Baker County in January, 28 points against Middleburg in a 71-67 win and 20 points against Paxon in the region opener.
For the Clay Today All County first team boys basketball squad, Little is the top draw with his 17.4 scoring average and his highlight-film dunks making him a target of numerous NCAA Division I colleges already as a sophomore. Little's high game was a 36 point effort against then-unbeaten Hallandale High in a first round loss in the Kiwanis Club Tournament over Christmas. Little had eight double-doubles (double digit points and rebounds) and 11 games over 20 points. Little also amassed a school record 220 rebounds with 48 steals and 69 blocked shots.
Joining Little are Orange Park High teammates Jamarcus Richardson, a senior 6-6 dunk specialist with 21 dunks setting a Raider school record, that gave coach Derek Kurnitsky an inside power player that could move quickly downcourt for spectacular results (10 points per game, six rebounds) and junior sharp shooter Blake Partin who rifled through enemy defenses to set up his patented three point shot that was able to turn Raider close games to come-from-behind wins. Partin led the multiple shooter offense of Kurnitsky with an 11.0 points per game average.
"Blake finished third in northeast Florida in his three point shooting percentage," said Kurnitsky. "He put us back in plenty of games with his shooting."
Two relatively surprise choices to first team status, but equally critical to the success of their respective teams were Oakleaf High junior Dominique Mitchell, a muscular post player that entered the Knights starting lineup near midseason and instantly turned the potent Knights attack into a two-three shot salvo with his rebound work underneath, and Middleburg High senior Dean Harrison, a uniquely talented 6-8 rebounder that hovered near the three point line and hit an amazing 48 percent of his three pointers.
"Dominique solidified our run to the district championship, scored and rebounded down the stretch. was instrumental in finishing 9-2 in last 11 games," said Price. "He was a tough defender, good rebounder and a terrific passer that came up big in big games."
Harrison on a different team could have been a lethal weapon with his adept hand skills combined with his rebounding ability plus his height.
"In my opinion, most improved player in the area," said Middleburg High coach Michael Harrison, Dean's father. "Dean spent hours working on his skill set. To the point where he has 4 offers on the D3 level and interest from NAIA schools for next year. He provided our young team with a High IQ, and strong leadership on the court. Without him we really struggled on both ends of the court to be in the right spots."
For the girls, Oakleaf High had the preseason mega team filled with seven seniors including Miami-bound center Jade Lewis and guard Destiny Arvinger. Lady Knights ran the table for a district 4-7A title until their region semifinal upset loss to Robert E. Lee High School halted the ride. Arvinger, with 17 points per game and five assists, improved her overall shooting skills and was a bit more precise and measured in her approach to guiding coach Frank Jenkins team while Lewis, with 14 points per game and eight rebounds per game, was able to turn a game around whenever she decided to join the fray.
Joining Arvinger, Middleburg High's Hannah Roney continued her uncanny scoring abilities with a 20.0 points per game average lower than last year's near 26 points, but with four steals per game on the defensive side. Roney's younger sister Mallory joining the shooting fireworks for coach Michael Hayward with her 18.7 points per game making her a second team selection.
"Hannah has been a one lady show, being the only go to person in a rebuilding program her freshman and sophomore year," said Hayward. "She led the team in scoring, assists, and steals per game."
The final two first team selections go to Orange Park senior Shakarri Mack who complemented Ruemmeley's high flying show on the perimeter with her blue-collar battling on the boards for the Lady Raiders with 165 rebounds, five blocked shots and 32 steals plus an 11.4 points per game average.
For Fleming Island, senior Taylor Donald (14 points per game, 6.5 rebounds) was the steadying force of a team that seemed destined to encore a great first season for coach Joey Williams, but got caught up in a season without a strong post player with graduated all county first teamer Emily Bartholomew not manning the paint.
"Taylor led the team in scoring and rebounding back to back seasons because she plays hard and tough for her size," said Williams.
Clay Today All County Girls Basketball Player of Year
Gianni Ruemmeley, senior, Orange Park High School
Jade Lewis OHS
Destiny Arvinger OHS
Hannah Roney MHS
Shakarri Mack OPHS
Taylor Donald FIHs
Molly Ragle FIHS
Maxine Knox OPHS
Baileigh Larson OHS
Mallory Roney MHS
Sydney Samuels OHS
CHS: Alexis Stilianou, Mariah Martin, Shalondra Evans, Ginny Stephenson, Charese Chandler
FIHS: Hanna McGrory, Mallory Sinsel; Aubrey Burke; Summer Baer
MHS; Katie Bryan, Sieanna HardisonOPHS: Tori Cole, Dyronna Harris, Harlee Sharpe
OHS: Zaria Crocker, Florida Owens, Sabria Littles
RHS: Portia Williams
SJCDS: Lizzy HaislipKHHS: Caroline McCormick, Victoria Snider, Melody Hunter
Clay Today All County Boys Basketball Player of Year
Jonathan Bryant, junior, Oakleaf High School
Nassir Little OHS
Blake Partin OPHS
Jamarcus Richardson OPHS
Dean Harrison MHS
Dominique Mitchell OHS
Andrew Harper OHS
Colin Wilson CHS
JR Booher CHS
Ty McBride OPHS
Max Benoit FIHS
OHS: Brandon Aponte, Christian Larson
CHS: Derek Smith, Raequan Williams, Terry Marshall, Denaud ValmyrMHS: Jalen Oliver, Orlando WimberlyFIHS: Eric Collins, Warren Miller, Daniel Sanborn
RHS: Ari Wilder, Harley Richard, Vernon Arnold, Phillip Burts