Two months ago, Lennard High boys basketball coach Danny Gaddis planted a vision in his players’ minds, a motivational ploy to let them know winning a state title was attainable.
It was December, and the team was heading to Polk County to play in The Lakeland Challenge, a one-day shootout at Lakeland High.
The outcome of the game was unimportant, though the Longhorns defeated Victory Christian Academy, 82-37. The city across Interstate 4 was the true destination.
“That’s the only reason we went,” said Gaddis, who played locally at King High and later at the University of Tampa. “The only reason we decided to take that game was so kids could get familiar with the drive and to see The Lakeland Center. It was about the drive to Lakeland. We drove past it and got familiar with the scenery and said, ‘We’ll be back March 1.’ ”
With a win Saturday against Lehigh in the Class 6A-Region 3 championship, the Longhorns advance to next week’s state basketball tournament at The Lakeland Center. The 6A state championship game will be played March 1.
“Plant the seed and watch it grow,” Gaddis said.
Lennard (24-4) has had one of the most remarkable postseason runs in recent memory for a Tampa Bay area team. In the second postseason appearance in school history, the Longhorns have defeated the No. 10 and No. 3 teams in the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches 6A state poll, beating Mitchell on a buzzer-beater and topping Largo, 73-66 on Tuesday, to reach the region final. Until this year, the Longhorns had never won a region game.
“This is four years in the making,” Gaddis said. “Every year we’ve progressed past the year before. All we’re doing is going down the checklist.”
Though Caelen Watts (18.5) and Gary Hector (14.2) are Lennard’s leading scorers, the Longhorns have had different heroes emerge since the district tournament. Senior Robert Gant made the winning 3-pointer on his only shot of the game against Mitchell, while Diontae Johnson scored a game-high 17 points against Largo.
“A one-man show or two-man show is easy to stop,” Gaddis said. “We have a true team.”
But the offense is also a portion of Lennard’s true identity. The Longhorns have four players averaging three or more steals a game.
“That’s part of our system,” Gaddis said. “Defense helps initiate our offense. And then there’s homecourt advantage. The Longhorns are 11-0 at home this season, thanks in part to L-Block, the school’s student section.
“That is the biggest advantage,” Gaddis said. “If you come to Lennard, across the board, this is the best environment for basketball. It’s intimidating to come in here. They’re good for at least four to six points per game.”
Gaddis doesn’t believe his team is a Cinderella story and wouldn’t categorize its regional victories as upsets. To him, it is simply a team on a mission, bringing to fruition another drive down I-4.
“Sports is a great equalizer,” Gaddis said. “Regardless of where you come from, everything is decided on the court.”