As the 2005-06 girls basketball season, the most memorable in Collier County girls hoops history, rolled around, Barron Collier girls basketball coach Mike Hamburger wasn't exactly sure what he'd get.
Sure, he had several great players returning. But he had to replace several important seniors as well. Could the Cougars, who reached the regional semifinals last season, make it again?
They made it. Then they passed it. Then they made history.
In guiding the Barron Collier girls basketball team to the first state hoops title in Southwest Florida history, Hamburger has been named the Naples Daily News Winter Sports Coach of the Year.
Even as the season progressed, Hamburger said he wasn't sure what the final outcome would be.
"I can't say I was sure until the final buzzer went off in Lakeland," Hamburger said.
But he saw signs of what could be throughout the season, even before the season. The girls played in several off-season tournaments in Maryland and at the University of South Florida and Florida International University. They faced teams like South Broward and Winter Haven, and that made the Cougars battle-tested.
"As great of team-oriented teams as we've had, the biggest thing was the toughness of these kids," he said. "That was a by-product of playing good teams on regular basis. Our kids never backed down at all."
That moxie was the missing ingredient. The Cougars had been supremely skilled in the past, but they played nice. This season, however, they didn't get dirty, but they did get tough. They didn't beat teams, they tore through them.
Barron's average margin of victory was nearly 38 points per game. The Cougars started the season on a 13-game winning streak and ended it on an 18-game winning streak. They did not lose to a Florida team all season.
Their two losses came under a bright spotlight. Barron was considered one of the top teams in the Naples Daily News Holiday Shootout, a showcase of some of America's best teams. But the Cougars dropped two straight to out-of-state opponents.
That was a prime time for Barron to dig a hole, but they refused to do it.
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"The kids' spirits could have been down," Hamburger said. "They could have lost three in a row. But we blew Oak Ridge out and that was a big confidence booster for me."
And he constantly tried to maintain his players' confidence, offering words of advice and inspirational magazine clippings.
"He's always there," guard Courtney Jacob said. "He is a father figure to all of us. He's always giving us stuff to do. We're always busy with camps or open gyms. None of us want to go on vacation. We want to stick around and become better players, and that's what he wants from all of us."
It all paid off, as the Cougars made Collier County and Southwest Florida history.
"This group took it personally," Hamburger said. "They had a mission and succeeded."