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No one’s looking past Sunlake’s boys basketball team these days

The Seahawks endured years of losses but confidence is high in this group that a playoff run, and possibly a district title, are in reach.
Justin Lucena has been with Sunlake since he was a freshman, enduring losing seasons before the recent turnaround. [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
Justin Lucena has been with Sunlake since he was a freshman, enduring losing seasons before the recent turnaround. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]
Published Jan. 16
Updated Jan. 16

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 coach James Bragg has the Seahawks believing in themselves through the 2019-20 season. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

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.’”

Related: High school boys basketball rankings for Tampa Bay

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.”

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  2. Shorecrest Prep senior Asher Rovin, who missed most of the regular season after sustaining a concussion, strikes the ball past Tallahassee Maclay's Broedy Poppell (21) in the first half at Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand on Thursday. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
  3. Plant junior Nyla Jean not only averages double digits in scoring, but she has a knack for stealing the ball from opponents. [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
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  6. Points were hard to come by in the first half for forward Jakara Akins, left, and Keswick Christian, which trailed Florida A&M 22-16 at the half of a Class 2A state semifinal Wednesday afternoon. [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
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  8. St. Petersburg boys basketball coach Chris Blackwell, seen here in a game earlier this season, said his team had to utilize freshmen as Tuesday's game at Fort Myers wore on ... and on ... and on for five overtimes. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
  9. East Lake's Jordan Hillmon, seen here earlier this season, scores a game-high 26 points in Tuesday's region semifinal win. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
  10. Hillsborough junior Jalen Harris, seen here earlier this season, scores 16 points, including two big free throws late, on Tuesday against Lakeland. [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
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  12. Clearwater coach Kris Foote, seen here in a game earlier this season, is happy to have another home game: “We get good crowds, they’ve been pumped up, and home-court advantage is big to keep things as close as possible to routine." [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
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