By: Mike Ferguson, Contributing Sport Writer
Davenport - When Nikki King was tabbed to lead Ridge Community High School's girls' basketball program, she had no experience as a head coach and the Bolts had no real history of success.
Now, in her fourth season, King returns five of eight players from a squad that won more games than any other in program history. Looking to take the next step, Ridge Community has adopted the motto, "We Rise" for the upcoming 2019-20 season.
"Teams have to prepare for us now," King said. "We're not the team people are scheduling for Senior Night anymore. They know we're capable of going to their gym and beating them."
The Bolts finished 16-8 last season, which included a thrilling 56-55 victory over eventual district champion Haines City. That's a victory that King says is the biggest of her tenure.
"We're the start of something new," senior guard Rosalinda Gonzalez said of the program's changing culture. "It doesn't matter what team we're playing. We compete."
Despite last season's success, Ridge Community has fell one win shy of making the state tournament in each of the last two seasons. The Bolts' 2018-19 campaign came to an end with a 48-35 loss to Kissimmee Gateway in the district semifinals.
"Getting to the playoffs is our main goal," Gonzalez said. "We've learned how to win and now is the time for us to start winning important games."
After stints as a graduate assistant at Webber International University and as a junior varsity coach at Tenoroc High School, King said one of her first orders of business at Ridge was changing the program's culture. Each year, she said, she's tried to add new wrinkles from small aesthetic changes to team-building activities. That's on top of the program's most emphasized cornerstones like playing disciplined and fundamentally sound.
"We've turned the program around and changed the culture entirely," King said. "We had a great summer of work. Our goal is not just to win, but to create a positive environment and be that parent away from home."
Gonzalez returns after leading the team with about 14 points and seven rebounds per game. Other key returnees include Jaiyah Swift, who averaged nine points, four rebounds, and three steals last season and Nahessa Smith, who King called her top on-the-ball defender. Smith averaged five points, four rebounds, and three steals a season ago.
"Defense is our strength," said Smith, a junior guard. "We're working on ways to get better and more confident on offense. Our goal as a team is to be better than last year."
Swift said the team is close-knit, which is a big reason for its success. As a junior, Swift said she'll work to become a more consistent shooter and more of a vocal leader.
"We play for each other," she said. "For a team that doesn't have a basketball reputation, it means a lot to be part of what we're building. We have a lot of bonding with our coaches that some other teams don't. More students and teachers are taking an interest (in the program)."
Ridge's goal of getting to the state tournament will force the Bolts to go through a new district, 7A-6. Haines City and Kissimmee Osceola will remain in the Bolts' district but Celebration, Windermere, and Clermont East Ridge will replace Gateway and George Jenkins on the district slate. Ridge began conditioning in late August and will open its season on Oct. 19.
"We're looking to take the next step and gain some exposure for our program," King said. "We want the public to see our kids and just how hard they work."
About the Author: Mike Ferguson currently serves as the public information officer at the Haines City Police Department. A native of Polk County, Mike previously spent nearly five years as a full-time reporter at The Ledger. Mike contributes to a number of outlets and has work appearing in the Associated Press, Yahoo, FoxSports.com, Athlon Sports and Sports Illustrated online among other publications. Mike earned his bachelor's degree from Florida State University in 2009. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Davenport, Florida with their two children.