LAND O’ LAKES — When Phyllis Crain took over as the Land O’ Lakes High girls basketball coach before the 2011-12 season, she inherited a region finalist team that lost most of its top players.
The Gators went 8-14 in Crain’s first season and were knocked out of the first round of the district tournament by Tarpon Springs. Last season, the Gators were 11-10, but once again lost in the first round of districts.
However, a year later, Land O’ Lakes is in today’s Class 5A state semifinal against Bradenton Southeast.
Getting there, however, was no easy feat. The Gators (23-4) needed a huge road win against Pasco in the region quarterfinals, followed by a grind-it-out performance against Brooksville Nature Coast and a narrow 40-37 win against Inverness Citrus in the region final that has them at The Lakeland Center for the program’s first state tournament.
“I’ve got a couple kids that have been in the system for a couple seasons, so that has been a key part of our success,” Crain said. “I wouldn’t say we expected to be here, but we have the talent to be here and we’ve played well at the right time.”
Southeast (29-1) poses the toughest test for Land O’ Lakes, as the Seminoles have three players averaging more than 10 points.
“Offensively, we’re going to have to take care of the basketball and defensively we have to be on point,” Crain said. “Our whole team has to be on their ‘A’ game against Bradenton. Bradenton has been to this point before, so they know what to expect going in.”
The Gators have had a winning formula in Crain’s three seasons: Play tough defense, efficient offense and don’t give up turnovers.
“We’ve been overlooked throughout the season, but there’s a lot of good basketball teams out there,” Crain said. “I’m excited for the girls and excited for the school. We’re not going to take this trip for granted. You never know if we’ll be at this point again. We, of course, will strive to get to this point every season, but you never know.”
Correspondent Andy Villamarzo can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @avillamarzo.