It has been 18 years since a Mariner Tritons basketball team has been to the FHSAA Finals in Lakeland. They aim to rewrite that history Saturday night when they host Lakewood in the Region 5A-3 finals at Frank Morris Gymnasium.
"We will have to play our best game of the year," said Tritons coach James Harris. "Those who do at this time of year keep playing. It's our second time in the finals in three years. It's my second time around as coach, so I feel better about how to handle it."
The Tritons (21-8) earned the home court advantage over the course of the year by winning the district title and by winning a big game on the road on Tuesday at Sebring.
"Lakewood is very long and athletic with a lot of skill," said Harris. "We'd like to be a rude host by winning and putting them back on the bus home."
To do that several players will have to step up and contribute for the Tritons. Harris said a lot of people will look at Rodney Hunter as a key player, but getting contributions from Kaleb Darrett, Isaiah Darrett and Chris Carpenter will be key as well. They all are capable of good games.
"It's a team sport and it will take a team effort," said Harris. "There are still a lot of good teams to play."
The last Tritons team to make it to Lakeland was the 1996 team coached by Tim Maloney that lost to Daytona Mainland 84-70 in the 5A state finals.
"We discussed it at the start of the season," said Harris. "Thee is only one team in school history, one great team that made it to the finals. To be a great team we have to get back there, but not every team was meant to get to the finals because sometimes you rebuild."
Seven straight Tritons teams made regional playoff appearances under coach Frank Morris, ending in 2003, to complete a streak of nine straight (1995-2003), including the two by Maloney. Including 1996, this is the Tritons' fifth time to reach the regional finals. Under Harris, the Tritons have been to regional playoffs five straight years since 2010. Overall, the Tritons are 16-13 in state playoff games.
"Our guys have done a good job this year of seizing moments," said Harris. "If you are able to defend, you can win basketball games. We generate offense from our defense. It's tough to score on us because we do a good job of putting pressure on the ball."
Support from the school administration and the student body has been good for the Tritons in the past and is expected to continue on Friday with a gathering as well as a big turnout to the game on Saturday.
"People could see how being at home could be a distraction," said Harris. "This year we mad eight trips of more than an hour to get there to play a game, so it's nice to sleep in your own bed and not travel. Of course, being a Saturday game there is no school and Lakewood could break up the 120-mile distance to make the travel as easy as possible on them."