When a high school team makes the playoffs, it’s an impressive achievement. But they also know that, unless they win the state title, their entire season and postseason will end with a loss. It’s just a matter of time.
Often a school measures success not just by reaching the postseason, but how far they get in the tournament.
In that regard, two girls basketball teams are holding their heads very high.
The Steinbrenner Warriors (26-4) and Land O’ Lakes Gators (23-5) both closed out the year on the losing side of a playoff game, but they each went far beyond any other team in school history.
For Steinbrenner, that was the Class 7A regional championship game, where they fell to the Harmony Longhorns, 44-40.
For Land O’ Lakes it was a step farther: The Gators lost in the state semifinals for Class 5A to the Southeast Seminoles, 49-24.
Land O’ Lakes trailed for most of the game in a contest that didn’t turn out to be very close. But Southeast, from Bradenton, lost just one game all year and finished the season with a 27-game win streak and the state title.
Coach Phyllis Crain said her team didn’t play a perfect game, but they played a team they knew would provide a big challenge.
“They’re a very good team,” Crain said about the Seminoles. “Yes, we could have done things differently, but I don’t know if it would have made the result better. Bradenton Southeast is a very good team.”
Land O’ Lakes proved they’re also a good team themselves this season, and Crain attributes the school’s first regional title to a commitment to teamwork and playing well together. The Gators were considered underdogs headed into the postseason — they finished as district runner-up to the Gulf Buccaneers — and had to come from behind in two of their three playoff victories.
But Crain saw their confidence build and is proud of how far their teamwork took them.
“I’m very pleased with the season and I’m very proud of my girls,” she said. “They played well together.”
Steinbrenner also is proud of their accomplishments, but the end of their playoff run is more bittersweet because they were very close to advancing to the state semifinals. The Warriors had a sizeable lead in the second half, but a run by Harmony evaporated that advantage, and they lost by four.
“We had everything you could want for a team that was trying to get to a Final Four: Hosting a regional final, having a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter and playing a great game for the first 24 minutes,” Coach J.R. Allen said. “Unfortunately, the last eight minutes of the game we weren’t true to who we were the whole season.”
But Allen also admitted that before the season started, he thought Steinbrenner would be hard-pressed to get anywhere close to the regional final. For each of the four years the team has been in existence (led by Allen since the beginning), the Warriors have gotten better. But after last season, the team lost their main offensive weapons and it looked like they might struggle.
Allen challenged the girls to live up to the success of the previous group, even telling them he wasn’t sure they would be as tough as their predecessors. He hoped they would respond in a positive way, and was pleased when he got his answer.
“They bought in. They really bought in and they responded to the challenge well,” he said, noting the team took on a strong defensive identity he plans to carry over into next season. In addition to taking another step forward in the playoffs, Steinbrenner also had their first holiday-season success this year, taking the Indian Rocks Christian tournament back in January.
Both coaches are pleased with their respective campaigns, and can look back on the year with pride. Plus, they understand that the last game has to be put in context of the entire season, since almost all good teams end the year on a sour note.
“The only person who’s not going to hurt at the end of the season is going to be the champion,” Crain said.
Published March 5, 2014
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