Seven years ago, the Milton High boys basketball team played for the Class 4A state championship and lost.
Ten years ago, the Titans boys at Woodham won the Class 4A state title. Before that, Washington was the 4A runner-up in 1991 and that classification’s champion in 1980.
Getting the opportunity to play for a state championship, let alone win one, is a rare accomplishment for local boys teams.
That’s why the area’s basketball community couldn’t be stronger in its support of Pine Forest, which plays for the Class 6A title today at 12:35 p.m. Pensacola time against defending champion Miami Norland in Lakeland.
“I’m always happy to see students succeed in academics or in athletics,” Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said. “I’ll be leaving at 6 o’clock tonight (Friday) to drive to Lakeland and support the team. I’m going to drive tonight until I drop and finish the trip in the morning.”
The drive to Lakeland is a long one — about 450 miles. But it’s not every day that a local boys basketball team has a chance to play on Florida’s biggest state at The Lakeland Center.
In fact, Thomas said the Escambia County School Board plans to honor the Eagles, win or lose.
“We’re excited for the team and the Pine Forest community,” Thomas said. “I hope they bring home their first-ever state championship, but they’re guaranteed to at least be the state runner-up. Either way, this has been a very successful team. They’ve earned their trip to be honored at a school board meeting, I’ll tell you that.”
Paul Bryan, the track coach at Pine Forest, held the same position at Woodham in 2003 when the Titans won the area’s last state championship. He fondly remembers that team, which included NFL player Tyronne Green, a starting guard for the San Diego Chargers, and Ben Washington, who played at South Carolina State.
“There are few opportunities to compete for state championships, much less win one,” Bryan said. “This year’s team at Pine Forest reminds me so much of that year at Woodham. That was quite a team. There were some players on that team, and everyone was so excited and proud of them.
“The boys team here at Pine Forest, and what they’ve done, has made a big difference at the school. It’s changed the demeanor of the kids, and has added so much excitement. People need a reason to be proud of their school.”
Navarre High Vice Principal Tim Short coached the 2006 Milton team that advanced to the state final. He also had the opportunity to coach current Pine Forest coach Brad Grant, who was on the Panthers team that advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals in 1995.
“You always want teams in the area to be successful,” said Short. “It shows people throughout the state that athletes in this area can compete with anyone in the state, even though we’re sparsely populated compared to areas in South and Central Florida.”
Thomas, Bryan and Short all pointed to the Eagles’ unselfish style of play as one of the team’s primary strengths and another reason so many people are coming together in their support of Pine Forest.
“I hope this opportunity gives them a chance to learn some life lessons along the way,” Thomas said. “A team is so much more important and can achieve so much more than anyone can as an individual. That characteristic is something that they have. They don’t have one star player — they do have a lot of big players — but they don’t have that one big player who dominates the game. They’re very unselfish in their play, and if they keep that spirit in the next phases of their lives, they’ll go far.”
And if they continue that style of play in today’s game, the Eagles also will be more likely to win the area’s first state championship in 10 years, Short said.
“The big thing for them to do is to continue doing what they’ve been doing,” Short said. “They can’t just be happy to be there, they have to understand why they’re there and know that they deserve to be there. They have to believe that.
“I also hope that they take a deep breath and enjoy the environment and the experience. Winning a state championship hasn’t been done since Woodham won in 2003, and that’s a long time. It’s a wonderful experience, win, lose or draw. And I hope they just concentrate on that.”
Follow Jamie Secola on Twitter at JamieSecolaPNJ@twitter.com.