Greg Coleman opened up the first day of high school basketball practice Monday at Lehigh Senior High like most over his career.
The first-year head coach with the Lightning went through offensive and defensive drills. His players got shots up. They focused.
“It was business as usual …,” said Coleman, who joined the Lightning after six years with Island Coast.
Only the tone was different. And they could certainly feel it.
“…with a little bit of a heavier heart,” he added.
That’s because it marked the first time, officially, that the team was moving on without Stef’An Strawder, the former floor general and point guard who had been a star on this team for the past three seasons.
The potential Division I recruit died inside Lee Memorial Hospital a little over three months ago after being shot leaving a youth night in Club Blu in Fort Myers. He was just 18.
“I think it’s going to be hard for me to not see him play and see him dress,” said Strawder’s mother, Stephanie White, who’s trying to start a foundation in her son’s honor. “It’s kind of like, it hits you.”
Surely, there is still plenty of healing to be done for the ailing mother, for the pain stricken teammates and for the coaches who guided the young guard to a promising future.
But Monday wasn’t purely about revisiting those pains, either.
“We dealt with things off the court,” senior Jarvis Martin said.
For Coleman and his players, it was about moving on the best way they could. Despite the circumstances. In some ways, basketball was the perfect pill.
“I think it was all in the back of their minds,” Coleman said. “It was obviously in the back of my mind. But it’s like one of those things. They used basketball as a release. So you couldn’t sense any down moments.”
The team wears blue and gold wristbands now. They say ‘BIP No. 2,’ which stands for ‘Ball in Paradise, Stef.’
They’ll wear a patch on their jerseys honoring the guard this season, too.
On Monday, Nov. 21, they’ll take the court for the first time in the team’s opener against Gulf Coast. Lehigh scheduled it on the first day possible for high school basketball, which is one day before most games take place. The Lightning will unveil new gold jerseys for the game.
“We hope to get a good crowd to support us,” Coleman said.
The school will hand out 500 T-shirts to the first patrons inside the door with shirts that read “Stef’An Strawder” on the front and “Your Legacy Lives On #2” on the back.
A local business, Matteo Graphics in Cape Coral, printed the shirts — and a couple other businesses chipped in — to help pay for the approximate $7,000 cost of doing the work.
Lehigh is expected to reveal a banner inside the gymnasium memorializing the would-be senior.
“We’re trying to make it a memorable and uplifting night to honor his memory,” Coleman said. “That will be an emotional night, but hopefully with the emotion comes a great night for basketball. I think that’s something he would enjoy.”
Martin, a three-year teammate of Strawder’s who started on two Region 6A-3 final teams with the guard and was a close friend, will wear his No. 2 before the school retires the jersey after the season.
And so, without question, there is a lot riding on the season. Lehigh has built a strong tradition over the last four years with former head coach Dawn McNew, who won 84 games before resigning after last season.
Coleman was hired in April from Island Coast before this all happened. He was rewarded with the strongest schedule the team has ever featured.
The Lightning are scheduled to play in two national tournaments (City of Palms and the Montverde Invitational), two regional series in Venice (Battle at the Beach) and Charlotte (Wally Keller) and a holiday tournament at Lemon Bay (Holiday Shootout).
“They’re playing for their fallen teammate, but we also like to say ‘It’s Lehigh vs. everybody,’” Coleman said. “That’s the attitude they have right now.”
Emotionally as much as physically, the Lightning will have to straddle the line between what their expectations are and what the reality is at that particular moment.
But in the meantime, they’re back on the basketball court and there’s some solace in that.