After just two losses each in the regular season, Community School and First Baptist were expecting deep runs in the boys basketball playoffs.
Lely’s appearance in the regional finals might be a bit of a surprise.
All three Collier County teams play Saturday night for regional championships in their respective classifications. A victory would mean a trip to Lakeland next week for the state semifinals, something few area teams have done.
As 2012 came to a close, Lely was reeling. After big expectations to start the year, the Trojans were suffering through a mediocre 7-6 season as January started. What’s worse, when Lely returned home from a holiday basketball trip to New York, coach Ryan Bowen left the team.
“We were a family before that, but we kind of fell apart for a little bit,” Trojans senior Nick Ronquette said. “Coach Fritz came in and really brought us together. He’s been here before. He’s played here. He really emphasized family.”
Fritz Jacques took over as the Trojans interim coach in mid-January. Since then Lely has gone 10-2 and won its second straight district championship.
Now the Trojans (20-10) are in the regional finals for the first time in four years. They’re going for their first state semifinal appearance since 1994.
Jacques quickly connected with the players. He coached most of them on Lely’s junior varsity team. As a former Trojan himself, Jacques could relate with his new players.
Back in 2004, one of the four times Lely has made it to the regional championship game, Jacques was a senior. He’s used his past experience, as well as advice for former coach Don Stewart who still teaches at Lely, to motivate the current Trojans.
“It was a lot of running,” Ronquette said with a smile as he recalled Jacques taking over. “It wasn’t that difficult of a transition because we were already so close.”
The Trojans figure to be underdogs Saturday night when they face Plantation-American Heritage (21-6) in the Class 5A regional finals. The Patriots hold a massive height advantage with seven players 6-foot-4 or taller, including 6-10, 225-pound center Drake Lamont.
If Lely can win, it will be the sixth Collier County team to advance to the state semifinals. Community School was the last to do it in 2008. Before that it was the 1994 Trojans team that finished state runner-up.
The area’s other regional finalists also face tall tasks. Community School (27-2) hosts Sarasota-Cardinal Mooney (25-3) in 3A, while First Baptist (25-2) is at Boca Raton-Grandview Prep (27-2) in 2A.
Both local teams must stop dynamic guards to move on to Lakeland. Cardinal Mooney 6-4 sophomore Antonio Blakeney averages 24 points a game, while Grandview Prep is led by senior Ivan Canete, who also scores 24 a game.
“They’re similar to us,” Seahawks coach Greg Donahue said about Mooney. “They’re young, they’re guard-oriented, they have a lot of good shooters. They’re a little more athletic than our guys.”
Donahue and First Baptist coach Scott Stewart have been looking forward to their regional final matchups for months. Both knew they would face these opponents if they made it this deep in the tournament, so the coaches scouted the teams multiple times throughout the year.
First Baptist is less experienced than its opponent. Before this season, the Lions had never won a regional game. Grandview Prep has won four of the past seven regional championships.
“That’s a tough thing mentally,” Stewart said. “(Winning the first district title) has helped us this postseason overcoming that mental hurdle. Now it’s fun and exciting. We’ve already set school history, let’s go for it all.”