Matt Herting and his Bishop Verot boys basketball players heard the rumblings coming from almost every corner of Southwest Florida.
“Teams that have hardly ever beaten us were licking their chops because this was their year to do it,” said Herting, the Vikings head coach.
That’s why this season’s trip to the region semifinals, the Vikings ninth in their last 11 seasons, is a different kind of special.
When the Vikings (12-18) head on the road to take on Dunbar (18-7) Tuesday at 7 p.m. in a Region 4A-3 semifinal game, they will do so having been through lows no Verot team has experienced in the last 14 years.
A bar set too high
Entering the season, Bishop Verot was 158-25 against teams from Southwest Florida and had lost just one game to a Lee County school not named Fort Myers or Dunbar since 2002.
But Herting knew that winning 86 percent of games against local competition wasn’t feasible with the graduation of Ricky Doyle, currently playing for the University of Michigan.
Injuries — specifically a hand injury to senior Hunter Hand — and a tough regular-season schedule also wore on Verot as losses mounted.
Double-digit losses to Barron Collier, LaBelle, Island Coast and rival Fort Myers helped send the team to a 17-loss regular season, the most since the 2001-02 campaign.
“We have handled a lot of adversity this season,” senior leading scorer Thaddeus Ward said. “There were times that we were down on ourselves, and we thought that we should be beating some of these teams.”
Ward and fellow senior Stephen Wagner found themselves in the unpleasant scenario of playing on a Verot team that would win far less games than the Vikings teams that their older brothers played on.
“I have been watching Verot play basketball since I was little, and I just wanted my team to be like those teams were,” said Wagner, whose older brother Mark played in a region championship game during his senior season in 2012.
Where’s Mr. Basketball?
Five of the last 11 winners of the Southwest Florida Mr. Basketball award have worn a Verot uniform, including the last two — Mason Taylor in 2013 and Doyle in 2014.
While Ward and Wagner have been good at times, the Vikings haven’t had their usual superstar.
“This is the first time in a long time that we really don’t have that ringer out there,” Herting said. “Every year in the past it seems like we have had that guy that is arguably the best player in Southwest Florida or is a year away from that.”
That vacancy equated to games where Verot struggled to score points. The Vikings closed the regular season on an eight-game losing streak in which they managed to eclipse the 50-point mark just once.
“Frustration was getting to us during the regular season,” said Ward, whose team entered the 4A-11 tournament as the three seed, their lowest position since 1998-99. “There were times that we couldn’t buy a basket when we really needed to. We were frustrated at that point.”
Rather than dwelling on a tumultuous regular season, Herting sold his players on the dream that they could still earn another banner in the rafters.
“I think our guys have felt an obligation to keep that tradition alive,” Herting said. “This team can have a losing season, but can still hang a banner and be a part of our legacy here. We really rallied around that idea.”
After easily beating Oasis in the postseason opener, Ward and Hand combined for 43 points and 21 rebounds as the Vikings crushed LaBelle 76-42 on the road to qualify for the 4A-3 playoffs, a feat it did not accomplish last season with even Doyle dominating in the middle.
“It was an emotional game,” Ward said. “We were coming in feeling a little neglected by some people from around the area. We came in to make a statement and we definitely did.”
A blowout loss to Dunbar in the District 4A-11 championship game put Verot on the road for its 4A-3 quarterfinal game against Lincoln Park. The Vikings responded and topped the Greyhounds, 52-47, thanks in large part to a late charge taken by junior Matt Medovich and two clutch free throws from Wagner.
“The playoffs is the time where people realize what kind of team you are,” Wagner said. “We know we aren’t going to have that second chance if we lose.
A golden opportunity
On Tuesday, the Vikings will face a team in Dunbar that they are winless in three meetings against this year, including a 64-21 walloping just 11 days ago.
But the win over District 4A-12 champion Lincoln Park has the Vikings thinking positive.
“We are feeling extremely confident,” Ward said. “We know that we can win that game. We have to stick to our game plan that we got away from in the district championship game.”
Even if Verot wins the Class 4A state championship, it will finish the season with a losing record for the first time in the last 14 seasons.
Yet here the Vikings are, playing later into February than all but three other Lee County schools, still with a chance to play for their fourth region title game berth in the last six years.
“I am more proud of this team than any team I have ever coached,” Herting said. “They have worked extremely hard and they have believed in Verot basketball. We have had a lot of great players come through here, but I don’t know how many of those teams would have made it through all of this.”
• Region 6A-3 Semifinal: Port Charlotte at Lehigh, 7 pm
• Region 4A-3 Semifinal: Bishop Verot at Dunbar, 7 pm
• Region 2A-3 Semifinal: Sarasota Christian at Southwest Florida Christian Academy, 7 pm