LAKELAND — Clearwater High made it back to the state semifinals for the first time since 2007, then the Tornadoes promptly were dominated by national powerhouse Plantation American Heritage, which ran away with a 66-29 victory Thursday.
But don’t fret too much for the Tornadoes, who were a bit irritated after the loss, but even more encouraged for what lies ahead.
“It’s a lot about perspective,” Clearwater coach Darian Dublin said after the Class 5A semifinal. “We are young (starting a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors), and we learned a lot today. Now that we have this experience, I guarantee you we will be back here next year.”
Sophomore forward Olivia Fuller said the learning curve inside the RP Funding Center was “huge.”
“I think what played a really, really big part of it today was that (American Heritage was the three-time defending state champs) and they are used to it,” said Fuller, who led her team with 13 points. “For us this was our first time being here. A lot of the girls walk in and see all the seats and the high ceiling and it feels a lot different.
“When I was shooting warmup free throws I wasn’t used to seeing through the glass of the backboard with all that room behind it. It’s a lot to adjust to. There were a lot of little things that add up.”
Then when play started, American Heritage — 24-2, ranked No. 1 in Class 5A, No. 5 overall in Florida and No. 14 in the nation by MaxPreps — acted very much like it had been there before.
The Patriots quickly got into a rhythm, taking a 14-4 lead after one quarter and pushing it to 27-9 midway through the second. By halftime, the Patriots led 37-12.
Two of the biggest problems for Clearwater (24-5, No. 9 in 5A) were the Patriots’ 6-foot-2 twins, Taiyah and Tatyana Wyche, who are committed to the University of Florida. In relatively low minutes, the twins scored a combined 18 points and pulled down seven rebounds. Adding to the trouble was an undecided major Division I-A recruit, junior guard Sydney Shaw, who led all scorers with 20 points.
In the end, the Tornadoes said they were thankful to play against such experienced talent.
“This is only going to make us better,” said sophomore guard Ace Sturdivant, who finished with six points. “I’m happy we played against such a great team. Now we know what it’s like.”
Said freshman guard Beckham Hockley: “We learned so much today. So much.”
Overall, Dublin said he was proud of what his team accomplished this season.
“Last summer the girls came up with a saying, ‘Eyes on Lakeland,’” Dublin said. “And then they went out and accomplished that goal. ... We are one of four teams to make it here in our classification. Now we can build on that.
“When we come back next year it will be a different story.”