EAST LAKE – One game isn’t going to define East Lake’s 2019-2020 season.
Not any of the mid-year tournament titles and not a mid-January loss.
That loss, though. The freshness of falling 64-52 to Doral Academy at a one-day shootout in Punta Gorda on Jan. 18 lingered a bit. The Eagles were 17-0 and scaling state rankings each and every week. Then star point guard Dionte Blanch got into early foul trouble and Doral Academy and its pair of 6-foot-7 forwards used that to their advantage with much success.
Despite the Firebirds being one of Class 6A’s top-ranked teams, just like East Lake, defeat hadn’t been experienced since the region finals last year at Lakewood Ranch.
“You start to question everything about yourself when you lose,” East Lake coach Britt Taylor said last week. “It’s kind of crazy. You start 17-0 and then you lose one game and you start to question if you’re for real.”
But the Eagles are for real. So is Blanch, a Murray State commit, and the sharpshooting of Jordan Hillmon and Dean Gabrelcik.
A five-day gap between games, however, allowed thoughts of the loss to linger a bit, Taylor said.
“We had to wait five days to play again,” he said, “so that was kind of tough.”
East Lake returned to the court last Thursday at rival Countryside. If players were doubting their collective ability, they masked it pretty well. The Eagles raced out to a big lead early, dominated at both ends of the court, and dropped the Cougars 79-43.
“I’m proud of them the way they responded,” Taylor said afterward. “They answered the bell.”
East Lake followed up the Countryside blowout by taking out Mitchell the next night, 65-36. Entering the week, the Eagles have four games remaining until districts – three scheduled and the Pinellas County Athletic Association championship game scheduled for Feb. 7. The final two will be perfect for postseason preparation. The Eagles have Orlando Christian Prep scheduled for Feb. 1 and Lakewood figures to be the South County representative in the PCAC title game. OCP (17-2) is ranked No. 1 in Class 2A and that game is part of the annual National Hoopfest tournament, hosted by Berkeley Prep. Lakewood (17-3) is ranked No. 6 in Class 4A.
Win or lose, both will provide quality learning opportunities right before things get serious. Against Doral, the Eagles caught a glimpse of playing without Blanch for stretches, as well as squaring off against quality bigs.
“That’s discipline and that’s our big word for the season: discipline,” Taylor said of staying out of foul trouble, noting that Blanch has never fouled out of a game before. “He’s our leader and he has to stay on the floor. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. Even though he’s our point guard, he’s our best rebounder. He’s 6-4, he’s averaging five rebounds a game. So if he’s not on the floor, we’re going to struggle.”
The struggles have been few and far between during a season that’s been East Lake’s best ever. The program’s previous best was last year’s 20-4 record heading into districts.
Capturing a second straight league championship will begin Feb. 11 at Wiregrass Ranch High. The Eagles will enter their District 6A-9 tournament as the top seed and the favorite. Last year’s advancement to the region finals marked the team’s deepest playoff run in program history.