NAPLES — After getting a later start than some of the area’s other power programs, the Community School boys basketball team joined the Southwest Florida elite midway through the last decade.
Lely, Barron Collier and Naples High have strong traditions, but Community School has enjoyed more playoff success of late. The Seahawks made the playoffs eight straight years starting in 2004, went to the regional finals four times in that spa,n and even made it to the state semifinals once.
That’s what made the past two seasons so disheartening. Community School lost in the first round of regionals in 2011 and missed the state tournament altogether last year.
The bitter taste of sitting at home during the playoffs lingered in the offseason and motivated the Seahawks, leading to this year’s redemption.
“Last year was a disappointment,” guard Charlie Badger said. “We wanted to get back (to the regional finals) this year and show what we really are, how we can really play.”
Community School has done what few other Collier County teams have. The Seahawks (28-2) won a regional championship and play Jacksonville-Providence (29-1) at noon Wednesday in the Class 3A semifinals in Lakeland.
The Seahawks went to work almost immediately after losing in the district semifinals last season, the first time they failed to qualify for the state tournament in nine years.
Expectations already were high for a young Community School team that returned its top six scorers and eight of its top nine.
Through all the workouts and shoot-arounds, even during 30 games this season, Community School never forgot the disappointment from last season.
“We’ve been thinking about this game all season,” junior Johnny Baker said after the Seahawks beat Sarasota-Cardinal Mooney on Saturday to win the regional title. “This feels great coming back from last year not even being able to make it to the district finals. We didn’t want that again.”
Perhaps the biggest boost was the addition of Jeff Merton, the 6-foot-5 junior who plays center but moves and shoots like a small forward. Merton transferred to Community School after playing three varsity seasons at Seacrest, and he leads the Seahawks with 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds a game this year.
With a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds against Mooney, Merton helped his new team get back to Lakeland for the second time. The Seahawks also won a regional title in 2008 and lost in the 2A semifinals, 51-41, to eventual state champion Jacksonville-Arlington Country Day.
“This is a good step for our program,” said coach Greg Donahue, who took over in the fall of 2008. “Our program has a great tradition. Last year we had a down year for Community School. This year we feel we’re right back where we need to be.”
The Seahawks’ goal all year was a trip to Lakeland, but state semifinals appearances have been the exception in Collier County, not the rule.
Only six area teams have advanced to the semifinals. Community School’s berth in 2008 was the first time a local team had gone to the final four since 1994.
No Collier program has won a state championship. Naples was the first area team to make it to the championship game when it lost in the 1991 3A finals. Lely also finished runner-up in 3A in 1994.
Fort Myers became the first and only boys team from Southwest Florida to win a basketball championship when it earned the 4A title in 2010.
“It’s a great feeling,” Merton, who helped Seacrest to the regional finals in 2010 and 2011, said about playing in Lakeland. “We’re happy, we’re excited — it feels great.”
The Seahawks’ semifinal opponent is no stranger to Lakeland. Providence is making its third final four appearance in four years, and won the 2A championship in 2010.
Community School has been on a roll lately. The Seahawks haven’t lost since New Year’s Eve and have won 14 in a row heading to state.
To get farther than any Seahawks team has ever gotten, the players say they have to focus on what’s gotten them this far — defense and quality shots. More importantly, Community School must do what it’s done since the calendar turned — just keep winning.
“We really just came together as a team this year,” Baker said. “All this hard work we put in all season has paid off. We’re coming in with a great team, and we’re playing well.”