LAND O’ LAKES — Playing Sunlake High’s boys basketball team was a foregone conclusion, an exercise in boredom, a guaranteed victory.
“I used to have coaches tell me that before they played Sunlake, they literally would write a ‘W’ on the scorebook before the game,” Seahawks coach James Bragg said. “That’s how bad it was.”
In 2014, Sunlake went 0-24, in 2015 8-17, and in 2016, the year before Bragg took over as head coach, 0-18. Before all that, Sunlake, which opened in 2007, had never had a winning season.
“The biggest challenge was getting the boys to believe they could win,” said Bragg, who after graduating in the first class from Pinellas Park High in 1977 went on to the military, then a life of coaching basketball and football at various high schools, the past 13 at Sunlake.
“I knew we had great kids at Sunlake and I knew that if they just worked hard, stayed together and stayed committed they would start winning.”
Bragg was right. In 2017, the Seahawks went 8-12, followed by an 11-12 campaign in 2018 and a 17-10 mark last year, which included a first-ever trip to the playoffs.
Sunlake (10-5) appears to have another solid shot at reaching the postseason.
“We’re on the way up, no doubt about that,” said senior guard Justin Lucena, who has been with Bragg since his freshman season. “Before the season, the seniors said, ‘You know what, this is our senior year, we are going to give it everything.’ We said, ‘We are ready for this.’”
A big change from a few years ago when Bragg said, “They would walk out on the floor scared.”
Now, Lucena said, “We walk out on the floor feeling totally confident. We walk out knowing what we can do.”
That means doing pretty much anything that’s needed at any time, whether it’s running the floor, playing man-to-man or zone defenses, running various offenses and battling tough under the boards.
Guards? Lucena, Mathew McDonald, David Barr, Francis Santiago, Brian Scott and Kenny Harris can all shoulder the load. Forwards? Look for Jordan Golden, Brayden Tuel, Josh Bent, Nell Santiago and Robert Reid to step up.
“There are some great athletes in that bunch,” Bragg said. “I have six guys who can flat out dunk.”
In the process milestones have been seized — see a victory over arch-rival Land O’ Lakes a few weeks ago — with a few more goals still teasing the Seahawks, including grabbing a first-ever district title.
Winning Class 6A, District 9 this year, however, would be difficult because East Lake — 15-0 and ranked No. 4 overall in the state and No. 1 in Class 6A — is the clear front-runner.
But the Seahawks don’t doubt themselves.
“We’re getting better and better all the time,” Golden said. “We’re a family and no matter what, we’re in this together.”