Saturday, May 26, 2018
Sports

Boys basketball: Lennard eyes its next leap forward

RUSKIN — When Mitchell enters the gym at Lennard for tonight's Class 6A region quarterfinal, a menacing black poster on the wall will stare down at the visiting Mustangs.

The L-Block graveyard marks the Longhorns' previous victims, with final scores scrawled on tombstones below the warning, "No one makes it out alive."

The cemetery, and the spirit and victories behind it, are all new phenomena at Lennard, a young program that won only one game in 2006 but has blossomed into one of Hillsborough County's best.

"It's a long time coming," coach Danny Gaddis said.

When the doors opened at Lennard in 2006, fewer than 600 students roamed its halls. The football, basketball and baseball teams all shared the same few athletes.

The boys basketball team finished 1-23, and opponents nearly doubled the Longhorns' scores all season.

"We used to get it handed to us night in and night out," said Gaddis, who was an assistant when the school opened before becoming head coach in 2009.

As the school grew to 1,900 students this fall, athletes began specializing in specific sports. The basketball team improved through the years, from one victory to three to 10, as the players matured. The Longhorns broke through last fall, winning 17 games and making their first trip to the playoffs.

"(It's gone) from the crowd not really being there to almost packed game after game," senior guard Gary Hector said. "From people not wanting to play on the basketball team to everybody wanting to play."

Lennard (22-4) has advanced another step this winter.

After Hector and Caelen Watts combined to score more than half of the team's points last winter, the Longhorns added depth. Watts (19 points per game) and Hector (14) still lead the offense, but Diontae Johnson, Aldridge Jones and Robert Gant are all averaging at least 7.5 points and two steals per game. Allie Turley joined the coaching staff, so Gaddis wouldn't have to be the only coach for the varsity and junior varsity for the fifth straight year.

Everything paid off in last week's Class 6A, District 9 tournament when Lennard held on for two single-digit, last-minute wins to secure the program's first-ever district championship.

"I appreciate the process, and I think a lot of these kids see what they're doing," Gaddis said. "It's gratifying to see."

Lennard's students and teachers have also become a bigger part of the program's first 20-win season. Students formed a noisy group called the L-Block, an orange-clad, megaphone-wielding, foam-finger-waving staple at home and road games that players credited for some of the success.

"It just popped up," Watts said.

The L-Block makes itself known in the gym through posters and banners plastered on the walls. Its online presence is growing through Twitter (@WeAreLBlock) and YouTube.

Lennard's two-minute video is one of 16 finalists for the Florida High School Athletic Association's spirit showdown contest. Bloomingdale is the only other area team among the finalists.

"It's a whole different feeling around here," Gaddis said.

Gaddis and his Longhorns expect a different feeling tonight, too, when Lennard hosts its first playoff game.

With more depth and experience and a growing student section, the Longhorns hope to add another tombstone to the L-Block graveyard.

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