Watching the Mariner Tritons this season almost reach the pinnacle of boys' high school basketball in Florida once again dredged up many memories of 1996.
That was the last time - and so far the only time - the boys' team has played in the FHSAA Finals in Lakeland.
Unfor-tunately, the Tritons did not succeed in returning to Lakeland, but hold their heads high after a 24-7 season that included their first district championship in a decade and first shot at a regional title since 2003.
John Weston. Ryan Hercek. Mike O'Neill. Robinson Tisme. Fred Atkins. Noel West. Earnest Graham. And Teddy Dupay. There were a number of others, too, but those eight were the main contributors in the Tritons' surge to the 1996 state championship game against Daytona Beach Mainland.
I was fortunate enough to be there to see just how close they came to winning the title just as I was in 1995 when the 33-0 Tritons girls' team made it to Lakeland, and lost.
The state championship eluded the Tritons then, just as it did Saturday night in Plantation where American Heritage prevailed 50-47 in the Region 5A-4 Final.
"We came up a couple of plays short of the final four," Tritons coach James Harris said. "Unfortunately we only get one shot at them. The best team doesn't always win. I'm very proud of my guys."
Proud indeed. The Tritons stormed back from a 12-point deficit with six minutes left to pull within one point with a minute to go, only to be denied a well-deserved trip to Lakeland.
In fact, all three Lee County teams still alive in the regional finals Saturday were eliminated. Bishop Verot lost to Tampa Berkeley Prep 70-62 in the Region 4A-3 and Evangelical Christian was beaten by Shorecrest Prep 86-68 in the Region 3A-3 Final.
The Tritons fell behind early, but started their comeback despite 1-of-15 shooting from three-point range.
"Against Key West, the last game we lost, we were settling for the three-point shot," said Harris. "That's how much we have grown as a team since then. We were getting the ball inside and driving to the basket for layups to be right there."
Tyler Bender drove the lane several times and scored seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter. Senior Kendrec Ferrara led the the team with 16 points, eight rebounds and blocked seven shots. Donald Minto added 13 points and started the comeback with four minutes to go with a traditional three-point play.
Heritage's Keyshawn Evans, who finished with a game-high 23 points, helped seal the win by converting 8-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter.
"We didn't do a good enough job of defending their best two guys," said Harris. "They did a good job of guarding Rick Moore, who was finding it difficult to get a shot."
Moore, who finished with two points, missed a three-point shot from the top of the key with five seconds left that would have tied the game.
It's too bad the Tritons did not advance, which would have continued an unprecedented run for Southwest Florida teams reaching the FHSAA Finals the last two years ...
That's topped, of course, by the Ida Baker girls' Class 4A state soccer championship earlier this month and the Dunbar girls' Class 4A state basketball championship just last week.
Evangelical Christian made it to the boys' soccer title match, but had to settle for a state runner-up trophy.
And we must not forget Cape Coral High's back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons and its bid for back-to-back boys' soccer state championships. The Seahawks' impressive feat was derailed by a surprising loss to Immokalee in the regional quarterfinals this season.