ST. PETERSBURG — Lakewood coach Anthony Lawrence Sr. designed a schedule that yielded few easy nights to prepare his team — loaded with Division I recruits — for the possibility of a deep postseason run.
But Lakewood found out quickly that being good — and recognizable — can be a mixed blessing.
The Spartans have two college signees — seniors Jacobi Boykins (Louisiana Tech) and Mike Clark (St. Francis) — and another top player, Anthony Lawrence Jr., who is considered a four-star recruit in the 2015 class. All three spent the summer traveling the country in showcases and with club teams.
Their star status guaranteed Lakewood would not be flying under the radar. Even worse, the Spartans started the season without many of their two-sport athletes, who were playing in the Class 5A state semifinals in football, and were still developing chemistry with Boykins (out most of last season with a fractured neck) and Clark (a transfer from Boca Ciega).
Getting off to a fast start was problematic with games against high-profile teams such as Class 4A No. 1 Berkeley Prep and nationally ranked Montverde Academy the first month of the season. Lakewood struggled to get to .500 and was swept in the regular season by district rival Gibbs.
But in the past two weeks, the Spartans have gone through a remarkable transformation. Lakewood (14-11), which has the No. 2 seed in the Class 5A, District 10 tournament, is back to being considered one of the favorites to not only win the district title, but make the state final four.
“We’re dangerous because we’re battle tested,” Lawrence Sr. said. “We’ve played against so many good teams and against so many great players, that we’re ready for anything.”
Still, it was tough to convince the Spartans that the string of tough games was a good thing, at least in the first two months of the season. The low point came at the Kingdom of the Sun tournament in December, when they bounced out quickly after losing two straight and not looking good in the process.
Their performance prompted Boykins to speak up during a team meeting.
“As the captain of the team I talked to the guys and told them we have to get back on track,” Boykins said. “We had to show everyone that Lakewood is nothing to play with.”
It didn’t get much better as Lakewood struggled at the start of the month, blowing a 17-point halftime lead against Gibbs in a pivotal district game. The turning point came two weeks ago against Oldsmar Christian. The Spartans trailed by 10 at the half before rallying to win.
“Usually I would come into the locker room ready to scream and yell,” Lawrence Sr. said. “But I was calm. We assessed what we were doing wrong, and came together.”
Since then, Lakewood has reeled off an overtime win against rival St. Petersburg and a triple overtime win against IMG Academy.
In the win over IMG, Lawrence Jr. and Clark both fouled out in the fourth quarter. Boykins responded by scoring 38 to lead the team in overtime.
“We don’t have to rely on one guy to get it done,” Lawrence Sr. said. “So many people are stepping up. To be honest, I would put this schedule together again. Playing the kind of teams we have played only makes you better.
“I know our guys have improved so much since the season started, and we’ll be ready in the postseason.”
8A-8 at various sites
Wednesday: No. 4 Sarasota Riverview at No. 1 St. Petersburg, 7; No. 3 Manatee at No. 2 Palm Harbor University, 7
Friday at TBD: Final, 7 (higher seed hosts)
7A-9 at Seminole
Tuesday: No. 4 Pinellas Park vs. No. 5 Northeast, 6:30; No. 3 Clearwater vs. No. 6 Countryside, 7:45
Wednesday: No. 2 East Lake vs. Clearwater-Countryside winner, 6:30; No. 1 Seminole vs. Pinellas Park-Northeast winner, 7:45
Friday: Final, 7
6A-10 at various sites
Monday: No. 5 Dixie Hollins at No. 4 Springstead, 7
Wednesday: No. 3 Osceola at No. 2 Mitchell, 7; Dixie-Springstead at No. 1 Largo, 7
Friday: Final at TBD, 7 (highest seed hosts)
5A-10 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 5 Boca Ciega at No. 4 Southeast, 7
Wednesday: Southeast-Bogie winner at No. 1 Gibbs, 7; No. 3 Bayshore at No. 2 Lakewood, 7
Friday at TBD: Final, 7 (highest seed hosts)
5A-8 at Anclote
Tuesday: No. 5 Dunedin vs. No. 3 Gulf, 3; No. 7 Fivay vs. No. 2 Land O’Lakes, 4:30; No. 8 Sunlake vs. No. 1 Tarpon Springs, 6; No. 4 River Ridge vs. No. 5 Anclote, 7:30
Wednesday: Dunedin-Gulf winner vs. Fivay-LOL winner, 6; Sunlake-Tarpon winner vs. River Ridge-Anclote winner, 7:30
Friday: Final, 7
3A-9 at Northside Christian
Tuesday: No. 4 Northside Christian vs. No. 5 Indian Rocks Christian, 4:30; No. 3 Calvary Christian vs. No. 6 St. Petersburg Catholic, 6; No. 2 Admiral Farragut vs. No. 7 Clearwater Central Catholic, 7:30
Friday: Calvary-SPC winner vs. AFA-CCC winner, 5; No. 1 Shorecrest vs. Northside-IRC winner, 7
Saturday: Final, 7
2A-8 at Bayshore Christian
Monday: No. 4 Odessa Christian vs. No. 5 Lakeside Christian, 5; No. 3 Keswick Christian vs. No. 6 Citrus Park Christian, 6:30
Tuesday: No. 2 Canterbury vs. Keswick-Citrus Park winner, 5; No. 1 Bayshore Christian vs. Odessa-Lakeside winner, 6:30
Friday: Final, 6:30