TAMPA — The pandemic wreaked havoc on the high school basketball season, leading to rampant quarantines, schedule changes and illness. Few teams were spared, including the two area boys teams that advanced to the state final four: Bishop McLaughlin and Jesuit.
“It has been downright crazy,” Bishop McLaughlin coach Derrick Sharp said.
Echoed Jesuit coach Neal Goldman, “Our journey has truly been amazing.”
If Jesuit ends up winning the state title, the Tigers will have to buy a set of championship rings for the junior varsity, because without its youngest players, the varsity never would have made it to the final four.
“The junior varsity saved us, plain and simple,” varsity guard Ryan Weir said. “Our junior varsity is a bunch of heroes.”
The heroics began five hours before the Tigers were to play a Class 5A, District 9 tournament game against Jefferson.
A coronavirus outbreak on the varsity caused almost the entire team, including coaches Goldman and assistant Joe Sansonetti, to be quarantined.
JV coach Orloff Civil went to work.
“I started texting everybody on the junior varsity that they better get ready to play in the district game that night,” Civil said. “Our (JV) season had ended, and we had to find our uniforms and get our minds set that we were going to play.”
About the only preparation the JV players — including sophomores Jaxson Bless, Angelo Cabalan, Lucas Sallet, Troy Bowles and David Angel, and freshmen Nate Boakye, Jack Burkard and Chris Moliere — would get was a pregame shootaround.
“We didn’t want to just go out and play and lose,” Boakye said. “We were going into this thinking we were going to win.”
They did just that, beating the Dragons 67-54 in front of a screaming home crowd that included many varsity parents.
“But the next night (in the district semifinals against Sumner), well, that was the real miracle,” Sansonetti said. “... Sumner was a team our varsity would have been concerned about playing.”
Adding to the difficulty was the fact that Jesuit’s JV point guard, Bless, had to begin quarantining the afternoon of the game.
About a minute into the fourth quarter, Sumner (11-9) held a 12-point lead and appeared headed for a victory that would end the season for Jesuit (25-4).
“But we made a change to a triangle and two defense) in the second half, and it changed everything,” Boakye said.
Steadily, then resoundingly, the Tigers came back, ending the game with a 20-5 run to win 53-47.
Goldman cheered from his bed with a 100-plus fever. Weir danced and screamed on his bed. Varsity players dived hysterically into pools. Varsity parents cried. Civil wiped away tears
Buoyed by the JV’s heroics, the varsity went on to take road victories against Clearwater, Blake and Naples, the latter ranked No. 3 in Class 5A. Now comes Thursday’s state semifinal at 4 p.m. against Pembroke Pines Charter (11-3) at Lakeland’s RP Funding Center.
“We believe we can find a way to get it done,” Weir said. “This whole program believes. That’s why the JV won. We believe in what we do here.”
Bishop survives, then thrives
The coronavirus stopped Bishop McLaughlin’s season dead in its tracks for 17 days (Jan. 5-22). No practice. No playing. No contact whatsoever.
Then, just before the Class 3A, District 9 final Feb. 13 against Carrollwood Day School, the Hurricanes’ varsity had to skip the game and quarantine because of a contact-tracing issue related to a game eight days before.
The Hurricanes played the district final with their JV and were beaten soundly. But because they were a district runnerup, they moved on.
“And somehow we came back playing better than ever,” Sharp said.
Bishop McLaughlin beat three solid playoff opponents, all on the road: Calvary Christian (62-48), CDS (84-66) and Fort Myers Canterbury (47-42).
Wednesday, the Hurricanes (21-6) will travel to Lakeland for a Class 3A state semifinal at 2 p.m. against Andrew Jackson (19-6).
“(Andrew Jackson) looks good, but I think we’re up for it,” Sharp said. “We have what it takes.”
Sharp’s son, Emanuel is a major Division 1 recruit who averages 23.6 points per game. He is joined by juniors Dillon Mitchell (18 points, 10.4 rebounds), Anthony Davis Jr. (12.1 points, 4.3 rebounds), Joshua Watkins (8.5) and Matthew Webster (6.6).
“We feel ready for whatever may happen,” Emanuel Sharp said.