TAMPA — The Jesuit Tigers will venture to the eastern fringe of Polk County on Saturday night equipped with three air-tight certainties:
Lake Wales’ gym will be crammed, the Highlanders will press the Tigers the moment they step off their charter bus, and the floors in Neal Goldman’s home will be showroom spotless.
Amid the 52-year-old Jesuit coach’s litany of game-day superstitions is one borne of neatness and nerves. Goldman goes home and, for about an hour, vacuums the floors of his two-story, three-bedroom Tampa house.
“It’s nervous energy or something,” he says with a chuckle.
Such quirks — he also writes out his plays on an index card and fills out his scorebook at the same time each night — have served Goldman well during his quarter-century as Tigers coach. A 400-game winner, he has won more than 60 percent of the time and has led Jesuit to 10 postseasons.
But in spite of 2 1/2 decades of dissecting zone traps and dust busting, there’s one spot Goldman hasn’t been able to reach. Lakeland, annual site of the high school final four, remains that proverbial crumb lodged behind the refrigerator.
Saturday, it’s within Goldman’s grasp. Armed with his best team ever (27-1), the Maryland-bred father of two can capture his first state tournament berth with a victory in the Class 5A region finals against defending state runnerup Lake Wales (27-4).
“That’s been our goal since the beginning of the season, to get to Lakeland,” sharp-shooting junior guard Jack Fleming said.
“We feel that we definitely have the team capable of getting there. Hopefully we can get there for his first time and for our whole team, really.”
It would represent the culmination of three decades of service to the same school, and vanquish a history of excruciating near-misses.
“I’d be ecstatic,” said former Tigers guard James Bunn, one of Goldman’s best long-range shooters ever and a veteran of one of those playoff heartbreakers. “I think it’s something he’s worked real hard for. He’s a great man, has a great program in place.”
A USF graduate and former point guard at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Md., Goldman was coaching a Catholic youth team in Tampa Catholic’s gym when he befriended then-Crusaders coach John Szponar and took a job on his staff.
When Szponar took the Jesuit job in 1980, Goldman came with him. Together, they helped direct the 1984 team — led by current athletic director Terry Rupp — to the Class 3A state title and the ’85 squad to the state semis.
When Szponar left after the ’87 season, Goldman replaced him. Saturday night represents his third trip to the region finals, the state tourney doorstep. If nothing else, Goldman will arrive with the assurance he can’t be turned away any more cruelly than he already has.
In the 2003 region finals at Wesley Chapel, the Tigers appeared to have their final four ticket punched when Eric Sorensen — following a timeout — hit an off-balance 3-point prayer as time expired to force overtime. The Wildcats went on to win 77-75.
The year before at home, the Tigers were tied with a sub-.500 Avon Park team in the region semifinals when Bunn — who had hit a school-record eight 3-pointers that night — inadvertently stepped on the baseline while retrieving an inbound pass in the waning seconds.
That allowed 5-foot-4 Red Devils point guard Kirk Taylor to grab the ensuing inbounds, dribble directly toward three taller Jesuit players and sink a running trey at the horn.
“I appreciate how hard it is to get here,” Goldman said.
“We were a big underdog that night (at Wesley Chapel), and the kid hit an off-balance 32-footer to send the game into overtime. …So given that experience, yeah, I want to get the opportunity and you certainly want to make the most of the opportunities when you get this far.”
This year, Goldman arrives at this familiar fringe with a team bereft of a glaring weakness. A rangy squad with six players at least 6-foot-4, the Tigers can shoot (42 percent from long range), defend (12 foes have scored 40 or fewer points), rebound (35.3 rpg) and run.
When things seemed to stagnate late in the year, Goldman found inventive ways to challenge his players at practice. They responded with a 64-28 thrashing of Tampa Catholic in the regular-season finale. They’ll arrive in Lake Wales undefeated against Florida competition.
“We wanted the togetherness to improve and the way they handle adversity and handle certain frustration,” Goldman said. “And I really like the way that’s gone. …We feel like we’re playing our best right now.”
Should they continue peaking tonight, in a hostile setting, the county’s tidiest coach could really clean up.
“We’re really ready for that,” Goldman said. “I think we’ll relish that opportunity. We’ve been pointing for this all year.”
All games Saturday at 7
3A, Orlando First Academy (28-4) at Tampa Prep (28-1)
At stake: Winner faces Daytona Beach Father Lopez or Jacksonville Providence in state semifinals.
Who’s hot for First Academy: Florida signee Dillon Graham, a 6-foot-4 wing player, scored 19 in the Royals’ seven-point win Tuesday at Florida Air Academy.
Who’s hot for Tampa Prep: Six-foot-8 center Adonis Rwabigwi had a double double (20 points, 18 rebounds, four blocks) in Tuesday’s 76-44 romp of Lakeland McKeel.
Did you know? Graham and fellow guard Tyler Coons teamed for 35 points, six assists and five steals in last year’s 68-49 state semifinal win against the Terps.
4A, Fort Myers Bishop Verot (25-4) at Berkeley Prep (21-7)
At stake: Winner faces Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest or Miami Immaculata-LaSalle in state semifinals.
Who’s hot for Bishop Verot: Six-foot-8 sophomore Ricky Doyle had a double double (13 points, 10 rebounds) and 6-5 junior Mason Taylor nearly had one (22 points, eight boards) in the Vikings’ 69-46 region semifinal victory over Boca Raton St. Andrew’s.
Who’s hot for Berkeley: Rangy sophomore Justin Gray had 24 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in the Bucs’ 68-54 region semifinal win against Avon Park.
Did you know? Berkeley is seeking its second state tourney berth, and first in 45 years. …These teams have met already. Berkeley eked out a 58-57 road win on Jan. 20 on Nelson Agholor’s winning layup with three ticks to go.
5A, Jesuit (27-1) at Lake Wales (27-4)
At stake: Winner faces Cape Coral Mariner or Plantation American Heritage in state semifinals.
Who’s hot for Jesuit: Junior low-post star Travis Johnson fell three assists shy of a triple double (11 points, 13 rebounds) in Tuesday’s 63-53 win against Robinson.
Who’s hot for Lake Wales: Six-foot-5 senior Marcel White had 20 points in the Highlanders’ 81-48 region semifinal rout of Rockledge.
Did you know? Lake Wales returns two starters — White and guard Russell Wilson — from last season’s 5A state runnerup team. …The Highlanders’ roster boasts six players 6-5 or taller.