A Retrospective of Our Anomalous Season

By the grace of God, the sediment of friendship and the whim of good fortune, I was back coaching this season at Lake Howell High School.  I coached the junior varsity Silverhawks.  We finished the year 15-10, but it is the journey that will stay within us as we move ahead with our lives.  This post is a retrospective of that journey.

We opened the season at Seminole High School where I have never lost.  We played well in the first half building a double figure lead midway through the second quarter.  We stumbled a bit before half, but still led 28-20.  I was confident that we were the better team, but the second half was a war.  Seminole pressed and fought us to take a 51-47 lead with under a minute to play.  We pressed, attacked the basket and offensive glass to tie it with under 20 seconds.  Seminole missed, we rebounded and pushed the ball up the floor with the clock winding down.  We took a running half court shot as time expired…..and were fouled.  The Noles defender took a tough angle to challenge the shot and could not avoid contact.  We hit the free throws and won our opener.

Next we traveled to Winter Springs to play my good friend Logan Malmberg.  The game was tight throughout,  but I felt we let ourselves down just before the half, and late in the third quarter when we failed to expand on two possession leads.   Winter Springs pulled in front in the fourth behind some inspired offensive rebounding.  In the closing minute, we hit a three to cut their lead to two, and rebounded a missed free throw with a chance to tie, but couldn’t get a shot up in time falling 54-52.

We played OCP next on the road, and turned a close game in our favor with a sublime 22-0 run to start the second half.  It was the first time in three games that we didn’t have a white-knuckle finish.  I was relieved.

Our first home game was against Lake Mary.  We played an excellent first half and led 28-15.  It felt as though we turned a corner.  We didn’t.   Lake Mary fought back in the second half hitting a 60 foot shot at the buzzer of the third quarter cutting our lead to four.  The game was notable for a clock malfunction that persisted throughout a tense fourth quarter.   Only after the game did we realize the cause of our technical difficulties.  Thankfully, we did just enough to hold on 50-46.  I was proud of the way we fought and played in the closing minutes of tight games, but was becoming increasingly convinced we stood in our own way of controlling these type of games.

We hosted Orange County’s Timber Creek the next night, again spoiling a first half lead and pulling things out right at the end.   We were living dangerously,  and I was concerned that we were mentally accepting that this is how our games would play out.  Almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevented us from seeing the game as something that we could dominate or at the least control.

At Lake Brantley,  we led by five at the half and I gave the “s… happens” speech.  If we accepted that our games would be decided in the final minute, we must also accept that the outcome is random.  With one play separating the teams anything can happen, but by playing well enough to build a two possession lead, we can mimimize chance and manage the game.  Lake Brantley hit a tough shot with 4.3 seconds left, and we couldn’t get a shot up before time expired losing 61-59.  So much for fancy speeches.  On the whole, I was proud of how we competed.  The game featured some excellent individual performances and tangible progress in our ability to attack full court pressure.

We built a 49-37 lead against East Ridge with 6:36 to play, and then played some of our worst basketball of the season up to that point.  We hurried on offense forcing plays that didn’t exist, while the Knights patiently ran their sets and clawed to within one with 2:44 to play.  The teams combined for one basket the rest of the way, and we won 54-51.  It felt like a loss…..almost.

At Oviedo, we played the great Ray Ridenour, he of two hall of fame inductions.  We jumped out early to a 15-8 lead, and led 22-19 at the half.  I felt comfortable, but I shouldn’t have.  The Lions out-scored us by ten in the third.  I struggled to find a combination of guys that could bring us back, but we got there leading by one with 19.7 seconds left.  Oviedo called time-out, and we had four fouls to give so I instructed my team to foul before Oviedo could advance the ball and take a shot.  I later learned, Ray had prepared his players to be fouled upon getting the ball inbounds.  For reasons that remain unknown,  we did not foul and Oviedo, surprised, dribbled around for several seconds without a clear plan.  Finally, with one second left, we fouled trying for a steal.  Oviedo inbounded near midcourt and missed a deep three at the buzzer.  Another escape.

Lyman was a game I did not anticipate.  We were lethargic defensively most of the night, but kept the game close until the fourth quarter, when Lyman went on a vital run.  We were down 11 with just under two minutes to play and close to dead.  Full credit to the resilience of our guys who cut the lead to one with under ten seconds to play.  Lyman inbounded full court against our press and found a guy over the top for a three point lead, but with four seconds left we pushed the ball bacl up the floor and hit a three….just after the buzzer.  Tough loss.

We bounced back and played a good half of basketball against Wekiva to lead 30-29 at the half.  I had great respect for Wekiva’s length and athleticism, but was thrilled with we competed and played within our game plan.  We endured a brutal offensive drought I’m the second half and fell by 11.  I was upbeat because we were competing and coachable.

The Lake Mary Prep Holiday Tourney pitted us against our old adversary Winter Springs.  We again produced a strong first half to lead by six, and had a back door lay up to start the second half.  It would be our final highlight in a back to back 11 point loss.  Our third loss in three games.  Worse for me was that fact we had spoiled strong first halves and failed to keep either game competitive in the final minute.  Crisis was upon us.

We stumbled back with an ugly win over Hagerty’s freshman team playing up for the weekend, and trounced an overmatched Windermere Prep team before taking a break for the Holidays.  We were 8-5, but a fragile team struggling to find it’s identity.  Our first game back would be against Hagery’s JV, and my friend Wes Below, who scouted us during the Lake Mary Prep Tourney.

We played our best game of the season against the Huskies winning 63-39.  I was thrilled.  We played well in every phase, and experienced what domination against a credible opponent felt like.

The feeling was short-lived as Winter Park took us to the woodshed in a 69-42 loss that was truly the low point of the season for me.

I was deeply concerned about our mentality as we faced Winter Springs for the third and final time of the season.  Having lost twice already and coming off our worst performance of the season, it was a must win.  It turned out to be an extraordinary and memorable game.  We were tied at 15 after won, and then played each other to a dreadful 4-2 second quarter.  Neither team ever lead by more than four after the first eight minutes.  We trailed by two with 21.7 seconds left, but were fouled and hit two free throws to tie.  Winter Springs responded with a huge basket to go up two with four seconds left.  After a time-out we pushed the ball up the floor and hit a three at the buzzer to win.  It was the best moment of the season.

We played East Ridge on the road and hit a three at the buzzer of the first half to lead 27-19.  The second half became a borderline insufferable tractor pull.  We lost the lead, got it back and stood eight seconds from victory.   East Ridge advanced the ball, but on the most uneven of nights, we were perfect when it mattered most blocking a potential game tying shot.

3-1 since the break, but playing unevenly at best, I was struggling to get a handle on the team tactically and emotionally.   I went all in and decided we would press Wekiva, fall back to zone and take the game to them.  We trailed 13-1 90 seconds into the game, and I called a rare first quarter time-out.  Slowly, we hit a few shots and found the rhythm of the game.  We trailed by two at the half, but gained valuable confidence.   Early in the fourth, I felt we had them.  They were out of sorts, we believed and went up 48-41.  One of my guys got hurt on a foul, and with a sub at the table to get him, missed a free throw.  We took a foul to get him out.  Wekiva hit the first free throw, missed the second, but got a put back to cut the lead to four.  It started a 13-0 run, and we trailed by 6. 

We kept fighting and finding a way forcing overtime…and a second overtime…and a third.  It was surreal right to the final second when our last shot rattled out and we fell 71-70.  Fall isn’t quite right as beyond the final score I will always remember the resolve, playmaking and pride I had in my guys that night.

A few times every season, I ask my players to think about what someone who had never seen them play would say after watching them.  Would they respect you?  When this game ended, everyone in the gym respected my guys.  Our home fans gave the team a standing ovation as they entered the gym during the varsity game.

The night before our triple overtime game, Wekiva beat Oviedo by 30.  Ray Ridenour spent the freshman game blow smoke up our rear end, then took the court and put us in a 15-0 hole.  It was inexplicable and embarassing.  We pulled even by half-time, and won on the last play of the game when another Oviedo three pointer went astray. 

Somewhere in this run of games, I accepted that this team was an unbroken, crazy colt that would not be tamed or even figured out.

We trailed 22-2 at Lake Mary before picking up full court man, and grinding our way back into the game before
falling 47-41.

Lake Brantley fielded only eight players, but foiled my plans to press and run them into the ground with timely three point shooting.  Both teams stood toe to toe down the stretch and separated by a buzzer beating put back…in our favor.

I had high hopes for our return game with Lyman,  but they built a 12 point half-time lead that could have been bigger, but for a buzzer beating three.  We picked up full court and clawed back to tie the game at 44.  Then I hurt us bad, by switching to zone thinking I could change the game.  Lyman went on a run and we lost by double figures.

Seminole beat us by 10 in a game we just never got a hold of.  We were 13-10, but limping to the finish.  We welcomed Cornerstone to our place for our final home game, and played fitfully in the first half before pulling away in the second.

Our final game was on the road at Hagerty, and I was desperate to win.  We played well and won by eight in a complete performance to reach 15-10.

I am thankful for every player that shared this journey, and hope the memories linger long beyond our final night together.

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