By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes boys basketball team has made the playoffs seven times since the school opened in 1975, and seven times the Gators have failed to reach the second round.
The current squad is well aware of the program’s one-and-done history and plans to do something about it this season.
“I think we have the talent to change that,” said senior forward Mike Morrow. “Winning districts is possible for us to win this year. If that all works we’ll see how far we can go.”
A deep postseason run would be welcomed by 23-year Land O’ Lakes coach David Puhalski. He is the seventh coach in program history, but the only one to get the Gators (13-6) to regionals.
“We’ve had to play some good teams,” Puhalski said with a laugh. “Plant beat us one year when they had three kids who went to play Division I. We had a good team, but we couldn’t get by them. The next year we won the district, but Countryside beat us. They had a good inside player and we played badly to lose by three. … That’s what playoff basketball is. You’re playing against the best and we always seem to get the better ones.”
Land O’ Lakes’ five seniors would like to continue this season late into February, and potentially into March, for their coach and for their own legacy.
“Coach jokes around about it a little bit, but you can tell he wants to get over that,” said senior point guard Justin Thomopalos. “We’d all like it. Being my senior year of course I want to be the team to pull it off.”
The Gators have put themselves in good position to win a district championship for the first time since 2001. They have clinched the No. 1 seed in the Class 6A-District 10 tournament, giving them a bye to the semifinals. The squad has missed out on the playoffs the last two years.
Land O’ Lakes started slowly, dropping its first two games. Puhalski said the slow start probably happened because the squad was trying to find a replacement for last year’s leading scorer Darrell Warren and his 13 points per game.
“On offense it’s not like we have one player — we have different players scoring,” Puhalski said. “Mike Morrow has been our leading scorer for the year, but Ernest McClendon, Victor Obi, Jackson Cannon and other guys have stepped up. It’s been a pleasure because it’s harder to play someone with three or four guys who can score.”
Morrow is pouring in 11.6 points while, McClendon is posting 10.7. Obi and Cannon are adding 7.8 and 7.7, respectively.
Having a diversified attack has also helped team chemistry.
“I think this team plays together better and gets along better,” Puhalski said. “Last year we kind of looked at Darrell Warren a lot. He had to be the hero. He could score a lot for us, but this year everybody is going in a row with shooting, passing and defending. They’re all great kids too.”
McClendon, a senior shooting guard, has seen the offense improve during the last few weeks.
“Ball movement and rebounding has gotten a lot better,” McClendon said. “We stopped turning the ball over too. The last few games we’ve been under 12 turnovers.”
Land O’ Lakes also had to replace the productivity of graduate Max Bartels in the paint. The center pulled down seven rebounds and blocked 1.2 shots a year ago.
Obi has stepped in at center using what Bartels taught him and is recording 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.
“Max helped me out a lot last year,” said Obi, a junior. “I came off the bench for him. I felt like I had to step into the void he left and step up my game for the team.”
The Gators did bring back Thomopalos as the starting point guard. His focus on setting up his teammates to succeed has helped Land O’ Lakes pile up wins.
“Coach always tells me I have to be the leader on the floor and get everybody into their position,” said Thomopalos, who averages 5.8 points and 4.3 assists. “If someone gets angry or something gets in their head I have to go and cool them down a little bit. I’ve liked the role. I’m not much of a scoring threat, but I like to distribute the ball. I like to make my teammates look good instead of myself looking good.”
The Gators have won a lot this year but know they cannot get too comfortable as districts approach.
“We have to get better handling the ball and not turn it over,” Puhalski said. “Continue to rebound and continue to get better defensively. Just try and get better overall every game. If we do that the wins will take care of themselves.”
The 6A-10 tournament is at Mitchell Feb. 7-10, with the championship is on Friday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches
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