Ferguson’s Natalia Pineda can still hear the screams.
Pineda, a 5-11 senior shooting guard who has signed with Eastern Michigan, doesn’t make many mistakes on the basketball court, but when she does, that’s when it happens.
“I still hear [Gabriel] Lazo,” Pineda said of the former Ferguson coach who left the team after last season to join FIU’s women’s basketball staff as an assistant. “[Lazo] is nowhere here, but I can still hear him yelling at the top of his lungs.”
Lazo built the Ferguson program, virtually from scratch, and the Falcons have annually been inching closer to what would be the first state title in school history — in any sport.
During Pineda’s sophomore year, Ferguson lost forward Mercy Gonzalez, who broke her finger in a post-game freak accident. This happened shortly after the Falcons had defeated Miami High to reach the state semifinals for the first time in program history.
Last season, Ferguson made it to the Class 9A state final, losing to Boca Raton on a long three-pointer at the buzzer. Shortly before the playoffs began, the Falcons lost 6-4 center Cheyanne Daniels, who sustained a gruesome ACL injury to her right knee.
“I went up for layup, I bobbled the ball, and I got hit from the side,” Daniels said. “Wow, the pain — it was really bad. I felt like I didn’t have a leg.”
Daniels had surgery on February 17 but returned to her first game on November 14.
Now a junior, Daniels has committed to FIU — where she will play for Lazo once again — and in the meantime is part of a loaded Ferguson team that returns all six starters the team used last season plus two standout freshmen and a 10-deep rotation.
The new coach is Tom Jicha, who will be directing girls for a full season for the first time in his career.
Jicha coached boys at Sunset (20 years) and Ferguson (four). For the past couple of years, once his boys had been eliminated from the playoffs, he sat on Lazo’s bench, helping with strategy.
When Lazo left, the girls and the administration united in their desire to have Jicha take over, and he’s grateful for the talent he has inherited.
“This is like driving a Lamborghini,” said Jicha, 50. “All I have to do is steer.”
Jicha said he’s not a screamer — more of a “cerebral” coach, he said, and Pineda and Daniels are making the adjustment.
“Lazo is very vocal, and Jicha expresses himself differently,” Pineda said. “Lazo was passionate, and that helped us. Jicha is older, but he’s an amazing coach.”
Jicha said he’s enjoying the ride.
In two decades with the Sunset boys, he had just one Division I player. But in his first year of coaching girls, he has three Division I recruits in Pineda, Daniels and Sheslanie Laureano, the best athlete on the team and another FIU recruit.
The two standout freshmen are 5-4 point guards Kiara Cruz and Amari Hunter, and 6-1 forward Angelee Rodriguez is one of the top sophomores in South Florida.
Gonzalez, now a 6-0 senior, is back as a third-year starter, and Yaire Rodriguez, a 5-4 senior point guard, is the fifth returning starter.
Jicha has brought his assistant from the boys’ side, Oscar Suarez, to help him on the bench. He’s the father of former Lourdes girls’ basketball star Tiffany Suarez.
As for Ferguson’s schedule, it’s a tough one, including a matchup with Lourdes on Monday, the Junior Orange Bowl championship in a month and tournaments in Maryland and South Carolina.
Jicha said Ferguson routed Boca Raton by 21 points in the preseason, and his players are optimistic that this will finally be their year.
“Winning state — that’s the dream,” Pineda said. “Every year, we get closer, but we never finish. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s what keeps us going.”
Dec. 28-30: Junior Orange Bowl Classic; Holiday Basketball Classic of Palm Beaches; Florida Prospects Holiday Tournament (Orlando); Naples Holiday Shootout (Naples). Jan. 5-7: SUTS Report New Years Classic in South Florida; Jan. 12-13: Team MVP Sports MLK Super Showcase (Hallandale and Dr. Krop); Jan. 30-Feb. 2: GMAC and BCAA tournaments; Feb. 5-10: Districts; Feb. 15: Class 9A-5A regional quarterfinals; 4A-1A regional semifinals; Feb. 20: Class 9A-5A regional semifinals; 4A-1A regional finals; Feb. 23: Class 9A-5A regional finals; Feb. 26-March 3: State final four at The Lakeland Center
NOTE: For full team-by-team outlooks, see the online version of this article at www.miamiherald.com/high-school
Defending state champions — 1A: Wildwood; 2A: Boca Grandview Prep: 3A: Tallahassee FAMU; 4A: Miami Country Day; 5A: Orlando Jones; 6A: Jacksonville Ribault; 7A: Fort Myers; 8A: Winter Haven; 9A: Boca Raton.
Top 10 Teams
1. Ferguson; 2. Miami Country Day; 3. Miami High; 4. Lourdes; 5. Central; 6. Gulliver; 7. Norland; 8. Doral; 9. Krop; 10. Hialeah; Others to watch: Southridge, Northwestern.
1. FERGUSON (Coach Tom Jicha, 1st year). Last year: 22-8 (State runner-up). Top players: F Natalia Pineda, 5-10, Sr.; W Sheslanie Laureano, 5-10, Sr.; PG Yaire Rodriguez, 5-5, Sr.; F Mercy Gonzalez, 5-11, Sr.; C Cheyanne Daniels, 6-4, Jr.; F Angelee Rodriguez, 6-1, So.
2. MIAMI HIGH (Coach Sam Baumgarten).
3. LOURDES (Coach Chris McKeon, 18th year, 391-94). Last year: 20-9 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: G Maddy Porras, 5-2, So.; G Val Sanchez, 5-3, Sr.; F Ellis Codospoti, 5-3, Jr.; Julie Vasquez, 5-7, So.; F Alicia Pagliery, 5-6, So.; C Caro Paniagua, 5-7, Jr.; G Brooke Merijane, 5-2, Fr.
4. KROP (Coach Ray Thompson, 16th year, 252-127). Last year: 13-10. Top players: G Destynne Francois, 5-7, Jr.; PF Shana Joseph, 5-10, Jr.; F Kamryn Walker, 5-7, So.; G Brianna Knowles, 5-6, So.; G Lindsey Weingard, 5-4, Fr.; G Ameerah Ali, 5-4, Fr.
5. HIALEAH (Coach Denoff Johnson, 15th year, 224-125). Last year: 17-7 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: G-F Brianna Sweeting, 5-8, Jr.; F Rebecca Darote, 5-9, Jr.; G Aaliyah Hill, 5-5, So.; F Malikah Campbell, 5-8, Sr.; G Shelika Domingue, 5-6, Fr.; F-C Monica Miller, 6-1, Jr.
6. SOUTH MIAMI (Coach Amaury Alvarez, 1st year at SM, 12th overall). Last year: 4-15. Top players: C Deandra Carvajal, 5-11, Sr.; G Carolena Lopez, 5-4, Fr.; G-F Angellina Sebai, 5-6, Fr.; G Emily Cruz, 5-1, Fr.; G Danae Kinder, 5-4, So.; G Madison Barrs, 5-5, So.
7. PALMETTO (Coach Donnie Martin, 2nd year, 7-9). Last year: 7-9. Top players: G Kiley Kross, 5-8, Sr.; G Cayonna Saint-Cyr, 5-4, Sr.; C Ashle Palmer, 6-0, So.; G Shannon Faradji, 5-8, Sr.; F Gabrielle Roberts, 5-9, Sr.; G Camila Patterson, 5-2, Sr.
8. CORAL GABLES (Coach Lisa Nanninga, 2nd year at CG, 11th overall, 97-93). Last year: 5-12. Top players: F Adrianna Walton, 5-7, Sr.; PG Kassandra Luis, 5-6, Sr.; C Alyssa Lamadriz, 6-0, Sr.; G Abigail Flores, 5-4, Sr.; G Isis Billings, 5-4, Sr.; F Tiffany Ramos, 5-8, Sr.
9. CORAL REEF (Coach Mark Wynn, 5th year at CR, 16th overall, 76-69). Last year: 6-14. Top players: G Remi Khamvonga, 5-6, Jr.; F Zynia Alvarez, 5-8, Sr.; F Sydney Tendler, 5-10, Jr.; G Nichelle Hunte, 5-4, Sr.; G Natalia Madruga, 5-4, So.; F Daniella Andres, 5-9, So.
10. CORAL PARK (Coach Marcella Anderson, 12th year). Last year: 4-18. Top players: G-F Nicole Isaza, 5-5, Sr.; G Daryl Quichimbo, 5-6, Jr.
11. BRADDOCK (Coach Aldo Bonilla, 1st year). Last year: 4-18. Top players: G Aaliyah Abdala, 5-2, So.; G K’lia McIntyre, 5-6, Sr.; F Damaris Artola, 5-6, Jr.; G Isa Alaniz, 5-6, Sr.; F-C Liliana Lopez, 5-5, Jr.; C Angelica Pozo, 6-0, Fr.
12. AMERICAN (Coach Don Everett, 1st year). Last year: 3-15. Top players: PG Amaya Dixon, 5-8, Sr.
MATER ACADEMY (Coach Danny Arguello, 2nd year, 15-12). Last year: 15-12 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: G Kaylee Llanos, 5-4, Fr.; G Brianna Alexander, 5-4, So.; G Ansly Jimenez, 5-3, Jr.; G Ambar Ramirez, 5-3, Fr.; G Annette Alicandu, 5-5, So.; F Elizabeth Dalmau, 5-8, Jr.
1. CENTRAL (Coach Tracy Reid, 5th year). Last year: 18-6 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: SG Zahra Daniel, 5-7, Sr.; SF Tahisha Doussous, 5-8, Sr.; PF Rushonnah Bain, 5-7, Jr.; SF Amaya Ashby, 5-10, Jr.
2. DORAL (Coach Rey Perez, 6th year, 89-42). Last year: 22-7 (Regional finalist). Top players: SG Daniela Barrios, 5-4, Jr.; C Samantha Vega, 6-5, Sr.; F Lyndsay Cejka, Sr.; F Valeria Guzman, 5-7, Sr.; PG Elymaris Rodriguez, 5-6, Jr.; PG Alyssa Perez, 5-0, Jr.
3. ST. BRENDAN (Coach Peter Ramis, 1st year). Last year: 12-8. Top players: PG Cassandra Armas, 5-3, Jr.; SG Carolina Prieto, 5-4, Sr.; SF Rosalyn Viaros, 5-6, Jr.; F Daniela Alonso, 5-4, Sr.; C Emily Diaz, 5-10, Jr.; G Alyssa Soublette, 5-4, Sr.
TERRA (Coach Bill Healy, 2nd year at TER, 14th overall). Last year: 8-11. Top players: SG Rachel Hernandez-Trujillo, 5-6, So.; F Taormina Cosomano, 5-7, So.; G Valentina Lopez, 5-6, So.; PG Vivian Vazquez, 5-5, So.; C Andrea Gutierrez, 5-8, So.; F Kassandra Aguila, 5-7, Sr.
1. GULLIVER (Coach John Zambolla, 10th year at GP, 14th overall, 248-108). Last year: 21-10 (Regional finalist). Top players: G Alana Pinder, 5-6, Sr.; G Kaitlyn Sanders, 5-6, So.; F Kendall Haymore, 6-0, So.; G Jenna Kaplan, 5-5, So.; F Abby Joseph, 5-7, Jr.; G Jessie Berman, 5-7, Jr..
2. FLORIDA CHRISTIAN (Coach John Square, Sr., 13th year). Last year: Regional finalist. Top players: SG Sophia Milton, 5-4, Fr.; G Carolina Ledon, 5-0, So.; W Janelle Garcia, 5-6, So.; G Gessi Hernandez, 4-11, 7th; W Alex Herschman, 5-7, Sr.; SG Rubi Rico, 5-6, Jr.
3. LA SALLE (Coach David Fernandez, 4th year, 38-32). Last year: 13-10. Top players: Andrea Sofia Benavides, Sr.; Cristina Hernandez, Sr.; Jennifer Yanes, Jr.; Valentina Zambrano, Sr.; Sofia Kuhn, Jr.
4. RANSOM EVERGLADES (Coach Christine Peluso, 13th year at RE, 21st overall, 253-171). Last year: 6-10. Top players: G Casey Quanstrom, 5-8, Sr.; G Mia Schatz, 5-4, Sr.; G Abby Sekoff, So.
1. MIAMI COUNTRY DAY (Coach Ochiel Swaby, 14th year, 292-85). Last year: State champions. Top players: PF Koi Love, 6-0, Jr.; PG-G Maria Alvarez, 5-7, Jr.; F Aasiya Berry, 6-2, Sr.; G-F Asha Taylor, 5-10, Sr.; G Jayda Theodule, 5-7, Jr.; G Sydney Shaw, 5-8, 8th.
2. SLAM (Coach Michelle Smith, 3rd year, 37-10). Last year: 24-3 (State semifinalist). Top players: PG Marta Franco, So.; G Isabella Perez, Jr.; G-F Jacqueline Garcia, So.; C-F Stephanie Perez, Jr.; F Janarria Sanford, So.; SG Isabella Pagan, Fr.
DIVINE SAVIOR (Coach Erika Biesterfeld, 6th year). Last year: 5-10. Top players: G Madelinn Romsdahl, 8th; F Nina Poulos, Jr..