At no point this fall was Gibbs at the center of the county boys basketball discussion. After all, the Gladiators have made the playoffs just twice in the past 16 seasons and have not won a district title since 1994. Yet two months into the season, Gibbs is 13-5 after winning six of its past seven games. The Gladiators' unexpected transformation has them headed into Friday's game at Largo with a chance to vault into sole possession of first place in Class 5A, District 12. And with wins over the Packers and Boca Ciega next week, Gibbs can claim the top seed in the district.
"I knew we had a great team with a lot of experience," coach Chad Johnson said.
Nearly everyone from last year's team that lost in the district semifinals returned. Gibbs also got a boost with a full season from Quincy Ford, a former homeschooled student who was bogged down in paperwork and only got to play in the district tournament last season.
Another surprise came with the addition of Jahar El-Amin, who transferred from Oldsmar Christian.
Though the pieces were in place, there was no reason to expect the Gladiators would make any significant turnaround through mid December.
At the Bright House Shootout, Gibbs lost two of three games and fell to 7-4.
"It was frustrating because we played well in the first half of those and let leads slip away," Johnson said. "We did a lot of soul searching after that."
There comes a time in a program's turnaround when all the planning comes together for one glorious moment. For the Gladiators, that moment came in the Northeast Holiday tournament in late December, when they went 3-0, including a victory over rival Boca Ciega in the championship.
"We just came into that tournament ready to win," said forward Ke'Owen Walker. "That win against Boca Ciega gave us a lot of confidence."
Walker has teamed with Charlie Brooks to give the Gladiators a solid 1-2 scoring punch. Gibbs will need that and more to knock off Largo, which has just one loss in the district and the upper hand for the top seed.
"The big thing we have to do against (Largo) is defend the 3-point shot," Johnson said. "They got up us on quick the first time and led 15-2. If we can stop that, I think we might have a chance."
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org