BRANDON — Brandon spent the first few weeks of the season coping with the biggest loss many of its players had ever faced: the death of teammate Milo Meeks.
The pain showed up on the court, with three losses in the Eagles' first five district games.
But Brandon has only lost one district game since to become a playoff contender in a crowded Class 7A, District 7. Players point to the brief but powerful legacy Meeks left behind as the reason the season started to turn around.
"Everyone just started remembering who we're doing this for…" junior forward Dante Mitchell said. "We just started pushing ourselves harder, saying we're going to do this for Milo."
Although Meeks spent his first three years at Armwood, a handful of the Eagles already knew him from middle school.
Kiefer Jefferson-Grimes first met Meeks when they were entering sixth grade. It took him a while to crack Meeks' quiet shell.
"By seventh-grade year, we were brothers," he said.
Meeks made a quick but lasting bond with his new team, too. He said little but let everyone know how high his expectations were after the Eagles lost in the first round of the playoffs last year.
He hustled for every loose ball and ran until he was out of breath. His teammates noticed.
"Kids catch on," Brandon coach Jamie Turner said. "He became a leader without having to speak."
That made his teammates take his loss even harder.
Meeks had been running with his team during preseason conditioning in September when he collapsed at the school. He died a few hours later at Brandon Regional Hospital. He was 17.
Players struggled to understand his death. When the focus eventually returned to basketball, the void in the locker room and on the court was glaring.
"We had to start over," senior forward Roderick Davis said.
The turning point came sometime last month, around the Eagles' 5-4 start. Turner could sense the pressure his team felt, playing without Meeks and representing a program that has made 10 playoff appearances in the past 15 years.
So Turner loosened up. He scrapped Brandon's slow-it-down style the Eagles used to pound the ball into their three big men and replaced it with a more up-tempo offense. Turner said he wanted to score more points, but he also hoped it resulted in more fun and lifelong memories for his players.
"Ever since that happened to us, the perspective of the game of basketball has changed," said Turner, whose team has won four of its last five games. "It's not win at all costs."
Turner said it's important to his players to move on, but they don't want to leave Meeks' legacy behind. That's why his team mentions him during players-only huddles at practice. They wear his name on black socks and blue T-shirts and spell it out while warming up with jumping jacks. They stare at his name atop the roster by the scoreboard.
It's also why they held a bowling party for Meeks on Dec. 30, with cake and balloons and ice cream, to celebrate what would have been his 18th birthday.
"He started the season with us," Turner said. "He's going to finish the season with us."