Cera McElreath

Leading scorer Cera McElreath returns for the Branford girls basketball team.

BRANFORD — After a trip to the Elite 8 last year, the Branford girls basketball team wants another shot at the title.

The Buccaneers’ top returning players include Cera McElreath, fresh off a regional title with the volleyball team, who was the leading scorer a year ago, and twins Kayla and Kyla Desmartin. All three are juniors.

“We’ve lost three seniors that were real contributors: Tori Suggs, Amber Hitt and Rene Root,” seventh-year coach Carla Suggs said. “But we have Kayla and Kyla returning and they started most of the year. And I got McElreath back.”

McElreath led the team in scoring last year with 351 points, while Root was second with 331. Root also led the team last year in 3-pointers made, with 35. Tori Suggs, who was hurt part of the year, was second and Kayla Desmartin was third with 22. The 6-foot Hitt led the Bucs in rebounding and blocked shots, while McElreath was second in rebounding with 219. Root led BHS in steals with 85, while McElreath posted 84.

Coach Suggs is excited about this year and the Buccaneers will rely on those three top players, and she expects the team leaders to help in every “aspect” of the team.

“We like to run and press, and stay out of foul trouble,” Suggs said. “The Desmartin girls can shoot, they play travel ball, they have a basketball in their hand all the time, we call them rug rats; Cera is a natural athlete.”

Branford held a few practices without the top three because of them playing other sports.

“We had to wait on McElreath, and the Desmartin twins qualified for regionals in cross country. We hadn’t got everybody together until last week,” Suggs said. “But we want to go where we went last year and beyond, we have a lot of talent and I’m looking for big things out of the team.”

Suggs named Trenton as a rival, the Tigers are a district opponent and also eliminated the Bucs from the playoffs a year ago. And Branford doesn’t have long to wait for a rematch — Trenton visits Branford on Monday.

The Bucs hosted the season opener against Ft. White on Tuesday, and travels Saturday to the Keystone Heights Shootout.

McElreath said they can improve this year and echoed the coach’s thoughts on their ambition.

“We still have to work hard, like we did last year,” she said. “We had a goal to go higher than districts and we did, we made it to the Elite 8, which we are striving for this year, and to go further: make it to the final four and beyond that is the state championship.”

Although McElreath has gotten in only a few practices so far she sees no issues in adjusting from volleyball to basketball.

“I shoot a lot on my own time with my brother (Colton Leibold), it’s really not much of a difference, I’ve done it all my life, I’ve transitioned every year for the past seven years, the running and the conditioning is pretty much the same, it’s different fundamentals,” she said.

McElreath said she will improve this year and has some lofty personal goals.

“For sure, you get better every year with practice, a lot of my guard skills, I played a lot of post last year, not really my position, but I had to fill in, and it worked out, but I think this year I’ll be focusing more on up top,” she said, and she expects to remain the team’s scoring leader. “I do, I’m at 790 points right now, my goal is to break a thousand before my senior year, 210 points this year that’s my goal.

“I use my power in transition and just go for it. I drive in a lot and use the glass, and my main scoring was on fast breaks, and getting fouls and going in for layups; taking it to the paint. I’m a good defensive player also.”

Despite the high expectations, McElreath said the Bucs faces some challenges.

“We lack height, our tallest girl is 5-foot-8.I think we have to be conditioned because we’re going to outscore teams, because we have a lot of shooters and we’re going to be faster than other teams, we got speed, we need to work on boxing out and getting some rebounds,’ she said.

McElreath called the Desmartin twins “very athletic,” and both play guard.

“I worked really had over the summer and joined a travel volleyball team,” Kayla Desmartin said. “I’m getting better at everything, my mechanics, dribbling, and shooting. I learned a lot in Gainesville.”

Kyla is more focused on defense in practice, and called the experience with travel ball “awesome.”

And did she improve.

“Of course, I got better at defense, I felt I was lacking at that, and travel ball really helped me with that,” Kyla Desmartin added.

Kayla said the move to basketball from cross country won’t be difficult for the two sisters.

“We’ve been practicing a little longer than McElreath,” she said. “Even during cross country, we ran in the morning and (now) after school we go to basketball practice. I want to get better at everything, but one thing in particular is finishing strong at the basket.”

Jeff Shourds is a sports writer for the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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