RUSKIN — Today, around 2 p.m., Lennard High's boys basketball players will enter The Lakeland Center, the site of the annual state tournament, carrying a boulder-sized chip on their shoulders.
Behind them will be dozens of students, teachers, parents and fans from the community, proudly wearing burnt-orange and white.
For the first time in school history, a team from Ruskin, the site of the most southern public high school in Hillsborough County, just a few miles north of the county line, is two wins from a state championship.
A 4 p.m. tip-off between Lennard and Lake Minneola in today's Class 6A state semifinals will decide which team plays in Saturday's state final at 1:35 p.m.
Until this year, only two teams — the 2010 boys track team and last year's softball team — had won district championships for Lennard since the school opened in 2006. In the school's eight-year history, one individual, a track athlete, has been a state champion.
The boys basketball team won its first district championship this season.
A state championship not only would give Lennard a winning reputation, but also end the school district's 32-year drought of not having a public school boys basketball team win a state title. The last public school to do so was Plant City in 1982.
“We thought we would do it last year and the year before,” said fifth-year coach Danny Gaddis, who accepted an invitation to play in a tournament in Lakeland in December so his players could envision returning this weekend for a state title game. “We keep our expectations high. I think it came with maturity. It's just a matter of time for us.”
And why not Lennard?
The Longhorns, who before this season had never won a postseason game, defeated the No. 10 and No. 3 teams in the 6A state polls along their way to the final four.
Playing the underdog role fueled this year's remarkable run.
“Everybody is saying that we can't do it,” senior forward Gary Hector said. “Just because we're in Ruskin.”
“All of the doubters, we're just proving them wrong,” said senior guard Caelen Watts, the program's all-time leading scorer with 1,675 career points who is averaging 18.3 points per game this season.
“I always plant seeds in their ear, because I think they get slighted a lot, just because we're at Lennard High School, and that's why I put them up for player of the year,” Gaddis said. “Their focus is a championship. They don't want individual awards.”
The team's success has created student spirit unlike before. The school's morning show regularly shows highlights of the team's victories, and dozens of students pack the school gymnasium, decorated with mounds of posters supporting the team. The Longhorns, who hosted all three region tournament postseason games, were undefeated at home this year.
The entire school, including the band, will empty into the courtyard this morning for a grand send-off.
“They kind of were starving for some school spirit,” said Lennard athletic director John Guarisco. “Then they saw what some of the other schools were doing and they embraced the basketball team. They're winning, and it gives them something to brag to other schools about.”
That pride has led to Lennard being one of 16 high school finalists across the state for the first Sunshine State Spirit Showdown, a statewide contest promoted by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Today, Lennard might face its biggest challenge in Lake Minneola (27-3), which opened in 2010 but is ranked No. 2 in the 6A state poll. The Longhorns will also be without their third leading scorer and perhaps most physical player, senior guard Trey Jones, who suffered a concussion and required stitches after falling head-first to the floor after blocking a shot in Saturday's region final win over Lehigh.
Even without Jones, however, being intimidated is not in this team's DNA.
“We have a chip on our shoulder every time we come out and play,” Hector said.
“All of us are seniors, and we don't want it to end,” Watts said. “We want to get a ring on our finger and a championship trophy.”