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Eastside alumna Lonna Turner continues a family legacy in the girls basketball Class 4A playoffs

Head coach Lona Turner chides the girls’ basketball team about defense. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Head coach Lonna Turner chides the girls’ basketball team about defense during its district championship win on Friday. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)

Lonna Turner stepped on a basketball court next to her older brother every Saturday during her childhood. She laced her sneakers. She took a breath. And then she marched across the white lines. Turner spent her entire day under the sun and returned to her father’s house in East Gainesville sweaty.

But it changed forever when Keon Hopkins, a boy four years younger, picked her to play on his team.

“He wasn’t coming off the court that day,” she said.

More than two decades later, head coach Turner, 31, leads the team she used to play for. With Hopkins as assistant, the Eastside girls basketball team played in the district championship Friday. They won.

Turner turned her eyes to the regional championship next. The team faced Dunnellon on Wednesday in the regional quarterfinals and lost, 56-45.

But Turner believes her impact will stretch beyond the two playoff games.

As a self-proclaimed overprotective friend of the team, she said she wanted to create a space where each of her players felt confident to ask for help.

“You need people to be able to lean on and to ask questions,” she said. “It's a village that I create around them.”

Lona Turner scolds junior point and shooting guard Akira Martin (No. 14) about fouls. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Lonna Turner scolds junior point and shooting guard Akira Martin (No. 14) about fouls. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)

She said she learned the importance of asking for help from her experiences with Candace Stebbins, the former Santa Fe College’s women’s basketball coach.

As a high school student, Turner had a 504 plan. She struggled to read.

Stebbins stepped in during her transition to college.

“She got me the help that I needed to be successful,” Turner said. “It was amazing to have people actually care for me.”

Turner said she wanted to provide for her community. She wanted to give other teenagers the chances Stebbins gave her.

“I just knew,” she said. “God put me in a position to provide that same care — that same loyalty — to push them to their fullest capability.”

Turner’s care for the Eastside girls is subtle. It’s the way she rambled about how many A’s her players had. It’s her small smile when she described her love for the girls. It’s her faith in the team.

“I want to put y’all on a pedestal and just let the light shine,” she said at one of the practices during the season.

Lona Turner fist bumps her team in the huddle before the third quarter starts. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Lonna Turner fist bumps her team in the huddle before the third quarter starts. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)

Turner didn’t always think she’d find a coaching job. She worked as a probation officer before her time at Eastside. The job’s long hours kept her busy. Then, Covid-19 swept through north central Florida.

Turner switched career paths and returned to the court.

“When it comes to the kids, I'm going to put my all into it,” she said. “And I didn't want to fall short.”

When she arrived at Eastside for their first practice, some of the players weren’t excited. The two players interrogated her, using a list of questions they had while researching Turner’s background.

“It was kind of a hostility there but also a fear of change as well,” said Aniya West, 17, the shooting guard and small forward.

West saw the commitment Turner had toward practicing and strengthening her grades. Her feelings toward coach Turner changed soon after.

“She pushed us to really strive for anything,” West said. “You can tell that it's from the heart.”

Precious Marshall, 19, the shooting and point guard, worried about how Turner would react to her injury. She tore her ACL ahead of the season, and she needed surgery to fix it. She thought Turner wouldn’t understand.

But Turner did.

With the encouragement of her team, Marshall recovered. Last year, Marshall ranked No. 4 for three-point shooting in the 4A District 5. This season, she is ranked No. 3.

“She helped push me here,” Marshall said.

Turner said she hopes her players know how much the Eastside community, including herself, appreciates them.

“They're cheering you on because of what you have across your chest,” she said to her team before the season started. “But by the end of the season, they're going to know your name.”

Eastside knew Turner’s name.

About 100 fans, parents and siblings applauded the players during the district championship. They cheered and jeered at the other team. They clung to their seats at every free throw, and they threw their hands up in the air when a shot missed the net.

Hopkins said her impact on the community extends outside basketball and a playoff game.

“She's making sure the kids is home and doing productive things and not out in the community making bad choices,” Hopkins said.

The two have coached together for two years. Hopkins said he only wanted to work with her. When the season started, he said he knew the two would repeat their game plan. It’s the same one they used in a second-place run with Lincoln Middle School. Win the round of 32. Win sweet 16. Win elite eight. Go to state.

“I feel like we can do what we did our first year,” he texted her before the season started. “Just go straight to the championship the first year.”

Playoff basketball is a familiar territory to Turner. Her mother and father both coached Eastside teams. Her father, Lonnie Turner, brought his team to the regional finals in 2003. Her mother, Lenora Turner, won two district championships back-to-back in 1995 and 1996.

Lona Tuner celebrates her first high school district championship. Eastside beat Palatka 52-37. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)
Lonna Tuner celebrates her first high school district championship. Eastside beat Palatka 52-37. (Liana Handler/WUFT News)

“I know the love that they have for the game,” she said. “The love that they have for the kids is in my bloodline.”

Her father moved to Michigan. Her mother doesn’t leave the house. But signs the size of a folding table hang on the wall of the gym, detailing each time her parents won a playoff game.

“I always have that with me every night that I'm in there,” she said. “They're always with me.”

Their legacies peered down at her every time she led practice, but Turner does what she has always done. She laces up her orange and green Nikes. She takes a breath. And she marches up and down the white sidelines with Hopkins next to her.

Liana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing