LAND O’LAKES — When Pamela Andrade walked into first period Tuesday morning, two cheerleaders broke into applause. In fifth period, someone wrote “Congratulations” along the white board.
The senior guard is a key part of the first Land O’Lakes team to reach the state semifinals. The Gators (23-4) clawed past a powerful Citrus team, overcoming them by three points, to win a region final and make school history.
“We have gotten great support from throughout the school,” coach Phyllis Crain said. “Everyone’s behind them.”
The girls practiced at USF this week to prepare for Friday monring’s Class 5A state semifinal against Bradenton Southeast (29-1) at the Lakeland Center. They’ll play in a dome arena and on a larger court, but Crain said they’re comfortable with the changes.
They’ll need that comfort level against talented Southeast.
The Seminoles’ lone loss came in late November, 62-50 to Sarasota, which is still alive in the Class 7A state semifinals; three of Land O’Lakes’ losses came to district powerhouse Gulf.
The Seminoles average 56.6 points and 31.4 rebounds to the Gators’ 45.6 points and 29.2 rebounds.
And Southeast boasts a veteran team with only one underclassman in the starting lineup, and is led in scoring (more than 14 points a game) by 5-foot-10 seniors DeAngela Mathis and Keshawna Robinson.
Andrade is the only member of the team who remembers what it was like in 2011, the last time Land O’Lakes made the playoffs. She was on the junior varsity team as a freshman.
“I looked up to them, so much,” Andrade said. “It felt great to get to school, and everyone looked up to them.”
In 2011, the school rallied around Shanel Sweet, a Queens University commit and the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Times’ North Suncoast player of the year. She was also a mentor to many of the girls, including Andrade.
Now, Andrade said, there is no single player who draws all of the attention. Junior Jhade Hayes (13.7 ppg) is the team’s top scorer, followed closely by sophomore Makala Canada, senior Taylor McDonald and Andrade.
“We’re a family,” Andrade said. “I love these girls so much.”
The crowds started out smaller this year than in 2011, Andrade said, when Sweet drew many fans. But the bleachers filled as the Gators refused to fall.
“I think we really wanted it,” Andrade said. “I think other schools were talking bad about us, but we had that motivation.”
This is Crain’s first playoff run with the Gators. She took over the season after Sweet graduated.
It took a little while for this year’s girls to learn they could trust each other, Crain said, but once they did, “I think the girls finally came together and believed in a team effort.”
Crain said it’s hard to pinpoint one thing in particular that makes this team different from all the others that Land O’Lakes has produced over the years.
“Their heart,” the coach added. “That’s what got them this far.”
Class 5A: Land O’Lakes (23-4) vs. Bradenton Southeast (29-1), 10 a.m. Friday
Where: The Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $8 per day.