ORANGE PARK - One thing about the Tuesday night clash of unbeatens featuring the Oakleaf High Lady Knights and the Orange Park High Lady Raiders is that both coaches should be well-dressed in front …
ORANGE PARK - One thing about the Tuesday night clash of unbeatens featuring the Oakleaf High Lady Knights and the Orange Park High Lady Raiders is that both coaches should be well-dressed in front of their respective benches.
Fred Cole, the former Orange Park High head girls basketball coach, will be manning the Oakleaf High sideline in his usual sharp suited attire that has been a staple of the RaiderDome competitions the past four years, while on the other side, former Orange Park Junior High coach, Michael Nesmith, will take the reigns from Cole in a unique clash of courtside friends.
“For me, with that game coming here, it’s a new era and a new tradition,” said Nesmith, prior to a win over Clay High on Thursday. “I’m not Fred Cole, I’m not going to coach like Fred Cole, I’m going to do what Michael Nesmith does. Plus my suits are better looking.”
Orange Park has opened with three wins in a row; a 68-11 drubbing of Baker County in their opener, a 67-26 win over Keystone Heights and last Thursday’s 75-14 win over Clay.
“It is in the Dome and there is nothing like it,” said Nesmith. “I’m going to coach my girls hard. We play Orange Park basketball, we’ll be successful.”
Oakleaf, implementing Cole’s fast-paced, suffocating defensive scheme with breakaways, has kept pace with impressive wins over Bolles, Lee (a key regional playoff foe), Bradford County, First Coast and Mandarin.
Nesmith has had a very smooth transition into the high school scene at Orange Park with his tenure at Orange Park Junior High give him recognition in the RaiderDome.
“Transition has been seamless because I knew some of the kids,” said Nesmith. “There is a good group of seniors here; Sydney Rowland and Nia Brown, both key players under Fred Cole. Nia Brown has been averaging a triple double for three games (double figures in shooting, rebounds and assists). They have helped make things smooth.”
One player that Nesmith likes is freshman Eris Lester, ironically, a former Lakeside Junior High player. Lester, so far has had point totals of 24 with seven steals against Bolles, 30 against Keystone Heights also with seven steals and 32 points against Clay, also with seven steals.
“Our number four is Eris Lester, just a freshman, but she really knows what she is doing,” said Nesmith. “She’s going to be good.”
For Oakleaf (5-0), the explosive rise to prominence last year was brought on by their two freshmen players now sophomores; Fantasia James and Kaylah Turner. Added to the mix is former Bolles’ standout Taliah Scott, also a sophomore, who has rifled up with team-leading point totals of 22, 16 and 25 againt Mandarin while James has punched in with 12 rebounds against Bolles, 19 points and four steals against Bradford with games of 20 and 21 against First Coast and Mandarin. Turner has also kept shoulder to shoulder with her backfield teammate with 23 points and nine steals against Bradford and 24 points against First Coast.
Both James and Turner ushered out long time coach Frank Jenkins in dramatic fashion last year with a late season run with a 16-11 overall record and a playoff overtime win over former state champion Nease High in the district tournament. Oakleaf lost in the district semifinal to Flagler Palm Coast. Scott averaged 20 points per game with six rebounds and four steals for Bolles last year.
“They know who I am and where I came from, but we’ve been taking small steps to make it work,” said Cole. “Fantasia is an awesome point guard and Taliah, who lives in Oakleaf, has added a third weapon to the mix.”
Cole liked the initial energy of the Knights attack and added one more element that differs from his squads at Orange Park.
“The Orange Park girls were just scrappy players and outhustled people,” said Cole, now at 5-0. “These can just flat out play. They are all so smooth out there.”
Cole noted that the Orange Park game was supposed to be at Oakleaf High School, but football playoffs pushed the game to the Tues., Dec. 8 date.
“It is going to be weird to be in the RaiderDome and sitting on the other end of the court,” said Cole, who spent two years as boys assistant coach before coaching the girls team for the past four years. “Coach Nesmith was part of the Orange Park Junior High team that fed players to us, so I know him. It’s still going to be weird until the whistle to start goes. Then, it is game on.”
Cole had records of 17-9, 17-12, 22-6 and 20-8 with three region playoff appearances while directing the Orange Park team.