LAKELAND — To be the best, Seffner Christian had to play the best, coach Greg Fawbush thought. So during the course of the season, the Crusaders drove more than 5,000 miles and spent nine nights in hotels as they traveled to find the kind of opponents who would turn them into a state championship-caliber team.
When it tipped off against Miami Country Day in Wednesday's Class 3A title game, Seffner Christian was on the brink of doing just that.
But with the swish of a Maria Alvarez 3-pointer just seconds into contest — the seventh-grade Spartan would have four more before her day was done — the Crusaders' source of motivation began to quickly slip out of reach.
Seffner Christian found itself in a big hole after the first quarter, and desperately tried to dig itself out for the next two. But the damage was done, and Seffner Christian lost to the Spartans 65-51, leaving its third final four in four years without the ultimate prize.
Fawbush said he had been warned against playing man-to-man defense against the Spartans (27-3), so for the first quarter, the Crusaders' went with the zone. Miami Country Day took a 25-14 lead into the second, however, and Fawbush immediately realized his mistake and made some changes.
"We did dig a hole pretty big in the first, and that was on me," he said. "The defense I ran wasn't effective."
Miami Country Day outscored the Crusaders (28-5) by just three points in the final three quarters. Twice in the third, Seffner Christian pulled within nine, and at one point, Peyton Walker said she witnessed aggravated Miami Country Day guard Danielle Minott — a Syracuse commit whom the Crusaders held to just six points — bark at her teammates.
"Right then I was like, 'We got this,'" Walker said. "They were getting frustrated with each other, and everyone knows when a team is mad at each other, that's when they're easiest to get."
Those chances at a comeback were short lived, however, as every time the Crusaders staged a run, Miami Country Day's oversized forwards and sharp shooting guards found a way to steal the momentum right back.
Having lost to the Spartans in last year's state semifinal, the Crusaders knew what was in store before stepping out on the George Jenkins Arena court Wednesday. On its way out of the gym the day before, Seffner Christian caught a glimpse of the Spartans as they outscored semifinal opponent Tallahassee Maclay 20-0 in the first quarter.
It left Walker with a lot to ponder.
"I was up all night thinking about what I'm going to do and what I'm going to have the team do," she said.
Walker, selected Seffner Christian's MVP of the game, finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and senior guard Sabrina Whiting contributed 16, including four clutch buckets from long range. But despite all the challenges that had gotten the Crusaders ready for Wednesday, they simply weren't enough to get past the biggest of all.
As the Crusaders waited in a line on the court to receive their runners-up medals after the game, Fawbush looked at the floor and shook his head, perhaps contemplating a season that, when it came down to the ultimate goal, was incomplete.
Seffner Christian had its share of quality opponents. Of the 25 it played against in the regular season, 19 made the playoffs and five made the final four. Miami Country Day may have been just one challenge too many.
Fawbush, though, refuses to leave with regrets.
"Would I do it the same way?" he asked himself. "Absolutely."