LAKELAND, Fla. – While the girls’ basketball team he had cajoled, coached and motivated to the first state championship game in program history was on the court at the Lakeland Center, Zach Gillion was in a nearby hotel with his two children, watching Christian cartoons. He also spent part of Saturday with his wife and his father at Bible study.
Gillion, the girls basketball coach at Northeast High (Oakland Park, Fla.), is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
He would have coached had the game been scheduled for Saturday night. Instead with an afternoon start time, Gillion was not with his players and his team.
Northeast sought to get the game time moved, and the girls had threatened not to play without Gillion. But once the schedule was posted, there was no going back.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Gillion told USA TODAY Sports. “But I told the girls that they were playing. I appreciated the gesture (of the threatened boycott). But I told them that this was a platform for them. The game was televised. College coaches are watching. Everyone was watching.”
What they saw was a 60-45 Northeast loss to Fort Myers in the Class 6A final.
Gillion said that as Northeast had embarked on what became a seven-game playoff run, he had every intention of working around his religious schedule and being there for his players every step of the way.
After all, Gillion said, the Florida High School Athletic Association had altered the schedule for him twice during the playoffs, in stunning wins against Dillard and Norland.
“Ed Thompson (the Florida High School Athletic Association’s director of athletics) had been very accommodating to that point,” Gillion said.
The FHSAA also accommodated Gillion in Northeast’s state semifinal game against Orlando Edgewater in Lakeland on Friday. The afternoon start allowed Gillion to finish the game before sundown.
But Saturday’s championship game was scheduled for 1:30 p.m., a conflict with Gillion’s observance of the Sabbath.
Justin Harrison, the executive director for athletic services at the FHSAA, said the schedule for the state tournament was set up and printed in December.
Once Northeast made the final, Harrison said the FHSAA tried to work with Fort Myers and the two schools that made the 7 p.m. final – Boca Raton and Vero Beach – to see if a switch could be made.
“None of the schools were able to make arrangements for a time change,” Harrison said in an e-mail. “All (three) schools had other planned athletic activities or events at their school, in addition to girls’ basketball, and had staff scheduled accordingly.”
The logistics involving teams, transportation, fans and other issues were daunting, Harrison said.
“Making a change in the state tournament is more difficult as it involves overnight stays and traveling greater distances than earlier rounds in the playoffs,” Harrison said.
“The (state) semifinals are given time blocks, so we were able to make sure that contest did not conflict. The championship games are given specific times, and thus we had to reach out to other schools (for a potential change).”
Gillion, reached by phone late Saturday night, was understandably dejected.
“I’m not great,” Gillion said when asked how he was feeling. “I don’t even know who to be disappointed in. Should I be disappointed in myself? Should I be disappointed in the FHSAA? Should I be disappointed in my players for not winning the game?
“But my biggest disappointment was with the situation that made me choose between my religious convictions or letting down these girls, some of whom I’ve known since they were in the fifth grade.”
With Gillion out, Northeast turned to 24-year-old assistant coach Tiffany Charles, who played college basketball at Winthrop. She obviously knows the game, but this was just her second game as a head coach.
Charles won a game earlier in the season when Northeast beat Pembroke Pines Charter, but that was nothing compared to a state final.
“This is a big stage,” Charles said, “and for this to only be my second time, I was definitely nervous.”
Charles lauded Gillion for being a positive influence and showing the importance of being true to your convictions.
When she spoke to him Friday, she said he remarked, “There is nothing you can do to tell me to tell me I have to coach on my Sabbath.”
Northeast (22-8) and Fort Myers (25-5) were tied 42-42 after three quarters.
Gillion tried not to look at his phone during game time, but he was getting a barrage of text messages from his players’ parents, who were providing score updates.
It certainly appeared as if Northeast could have used Gillion’s expertise as Fort Myers went on a 12-0 run to start the fourth quarter. Northeast, which was shooting a respectable 42 percent through three quarters, shot 1-for-18 in the fourth and also had six turnovers.
“I think there would have been a different energy, more intensity,” said Northeast senior Nailah Delinois when asked if Gillion could have made a difference. “Coach Tiffany did the best she could. I’m upset we didn’t win that game for Coach Zach.”
Gillion said he apologized to Charles for putting her in such a difficult position as a rookie head coach.
“She’s a tough cookie,” Gillion said of Charles. “She’s a good Xs and Os coach. She is a good people person. She’s an excellent coach.
“But I believe I would have made a big difference because half of those girls call me ‘Dad.’ There are buttons with those girls that only I can push.”
As for the FHSAA, Gillion said he was disappointed in how the situation was handled.
“The FHSAA doesn’t have high school games on Sunday to accommodate Sunday Sabbath-keepers,” Gillion said. “I think the same accommodations should be made for Seventh-day Adventists.
“I think they (the FHSAA) made some mistakes. Adults making mistakes that affect kids – that should never happen.”