LAND O'LAKES — When Pamela Andrade walked into first period Tuesday morning, two cheerleaders broke into applause. In fifth period, someone wrote, "Congratulations" on the white board.
The senior guard is a key part of the first Land O'Lakes team to reach the state semifinals. Saturday, the Gators (23-4) clawed past powerful Citrus (25-4) in the Class 5A region final 40-37.
"We have gotten great support from throughout the school," coach Phyllis Crain said. "Everyone's behind them."
The Gators practiced at USF this week to prepare for today's game against Bradenton Southeast (29-1) at The Lakeland Center. They will play in an arena and on a larger court, but Crain said they're comfortable with both.
They'll need that comfort level against Southeast.
The Seminoles' lone loss came in November, 62-50 to Sarasota, which reached the Class 7A state semifinals. Three of Land O'Lakes' losses came to district powerhouse Gulf.
The Seminoles average 56.6 points and 31.4 rebounds to the Gators' 45.6 points and 29.2 rebounds.
Southeast boasts a veteran team with only one underclassman in the starting lineup and is led in scoring by 5-foot-10 seniors DeAngela Mathis (14.9 points per game) and Keshawna Robinson (14.4).
Andrade is the only Gator who remembers what it was like in 2011, the last time Land O'Lakes made the playoffs. She was on the junior varsity as a freshman.
"I looked up to them so much," Andrade said. "It felt great to get to school, and everyone looked up to them."
In 2011, Land O'Lakes rallied around senior Shanel Sweet, the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Times' North Suncoast player of the year. She was also a mentor to many of the girls, including Andrade.
Now, Andrade said, there is no single player who draws all of the attention. Junior Jhade Hayes (13.7 points per game) is the team's top scorer followed closely by sophomore Makala Canada, senior Taylor McDonald and Andrade.
"We're a family," Andrade said. "I love these girls so much."
The crowds started smaller this season than in 2011, Andrade said, when Sweet drew many fans. But the bleachers filled as the Gators kept winning.
"I think we really wanted it," Andrade said. "I think other schools were talking bad about us, but we had that motivation."
This is Crain's first playoffs with the Gators. She took over in 2011, after Sweet graduated.
It took a little while for this season's girls to learn they could trust each other, Crain said, but once they did, "I think the girls finally came together and believed in a team effort."
Crain said it's hard to pinpoint one primary factor that makes this team different from previous Land O'Lakes ones but noted one contributing one.
"Their heart," she said. "That's what got them this far."
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected]