Last Friday night didn’t turn out the way East Lake had hoped, but the Eagles boys basketball team managed to do things no other has done in program history.
Bradenton Lakewood Ranch outscored East Lake 22-7 in the fourth quarter to turn a 38-35 deficit into a 57-47 Class 8A Region 3 final victory that sends the Mustangs into the state final four. The game was tied heading into the final minute before Lakewood Ranch began taking advantage of the free-throw line.
“I know it hurts them, but I told them in the locker room that they can’t hang their heads when they’re the best team that’s ever put on an East Lake uniform,” Eagles coach Britt Taylor said over the phone Sunday. “They have a lot to be proud of and also a lot to look forward to in the future.”
A win would have sent East Lake to its first-ever state semifinal but it was a year of firsts for the Eagles leading up to Friday night. The region final appearance was already uncharted territory and the Eagles got there by claiming their first district championship last month.
Getting over last week’s defeat at Lakewood Ranch may take some time, but for returning Eagles, the future looks bright. East Lake loses four seniors from this year’s roster but returns starters Dionte Blanch, Jordan Hillmon and Dean Gabrelcik. Another push for states should be expected for Coach Taylor’s talented squad.
“The program’s in the best shape that it’s ever been in and it always helps when you have the best player in the Tampa Bay area coming back, too,” Taylor said while making reference to junior Dionte Blanch.
Pinellas County will have representation at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland for this week’s state final four tournaments. Class 6A Lakewood (26-3) took down Lake Wales 70-60 and will face Jacksonville Paxon School for Advanced Studies (25-3) in a Class 6A state semifinal Wednesday. The Spartans have won two state titles (2002 and 2005) and last reached the final four in 2014 when they finished as the Class 5A state runner-up.
Four other Tampa Bay area programs will be playing in the state semifinals this week. Class 7A Hillsborough is in its second straight final four, Nature Coast Tech could make it an all-Tampa Bay area Class 6A final with a win over Fort Lauderdale Stranahan and a Lakewood win, Class 5A Tampa Catholic is back for a fourth year in a row and Class 4A Seffner Christian for the second time in three years.
North Pinellas is sending a nice contingent of wrestlers to this weekend’s state tournament meets in Kissimmee.
Thirteen area competitors managed to place in the top four of their respective weight classes during regional meets last week, earning them trips to states. Of those 13 individual qualifiers, four head to Kissimmee has region champions.
Countryside stepped it up at the Class 3A Region 2 meet in Kissimmee Osceola, placing fourth as a team and crowning three champions. Defending state champ Anthony Burburija ran his unblemished record to 51-0 by tearing through the 195-pound bracket with four first-round pins. Teammates Steven Nguyen (106 pounds) and Steve Chopek (126 pounds) also stood atop the podium with convincing gold-medal efforts. Nguyen and Chopek both pinned their finals opponent, as well.
Palm Harbor University placed second at last week’s District 3A-8 meet and finished sixth at the Region 3A-2 tourney. Three Hurricanes are headed to states, led by a pair of silver-medal performances from brothers Dylan and Colby Sparkman. Dylan placed second in an all-Pinellas final at 106 pounds, losing to Nguyen in the title bout. Colby took silver at 152 pounds. Joining the Sparkmans in Kissimmee will be 182-pound junior Ben Mason, who placed fourth.
East Lake, coming off team titles as the Pinellas County Athletic Conference and district tournaments, is sending four wrestlers to the Class 2A state meet. The Eagles placed fifth in the highly competitive Region 2A-3 field. Senior Jason Leggett (132 pounds) took second, Noah Bassous (182) and Madison Davila (285) wrestled their ways back to bronze and Billy Ryder (170) placed fourth.
Dunedin placed eighth as a team at the same Region 2A-3 meet and will send a trio to states, led by champion Jacob Krebs. The senior rolled his way through three bouts before earning a hard-fought 6-5 decision over Punta Gorda Charlotte’s Malachi Schaeffer. Falcons senior Desrion Arnold placed second at 182 pounds and John Jannelle (145) took fourth.
Pinellas County got another gold-medal out of the Region 2A-3 meet from Dixie Hollins senior Coleman Bryant at 170 pounds.