The Sarasota Christian boys basketball team didn’t have anything to fall back on.
The Blazers, a team led by a sophomore and two freshmen, couldn’t look to the past for answers because it hadn’t been done before.
A team making its first-ever appearance in the state semifinals facing an Orlando Christian Prep team with four Division I players making its seventh-consecutive Final Four appearance.
They were the undisputed underdogs.
And they knew it.
But that didn’t stop Sarasota Christian’s players from trying to make a statement of their own — one that would advance them one step closer to bringing a boys basketball state championship back to Sarasota for the first time.
"A lot of people thought this was going to be an easy blowout win for OCP, but we thought we could hang with them,” freshman Brion Whitley says. “We came out and gave our everything, and we hung with them.
“We knew we had as much talent as they do and we’re younger, so we have a lot of energy,” Whitley says. “We just had that confidence. We tried to shock them.”
Sarasota Christian hung with Orlando Christian Prep, which will look to win its fifth state title Feb. 27, for the first quarter before a string of turnovers led to a 13-3 Warriors run to close out the first half.
The Blazers refused to let up but were unable to erase their halftime deficit, falling to Orlando Christian Prep 58-44 in the FHSAA Class 2A state semifinals Feb. 25, at the Lakeland Center.
Whitley led Sarasota Christian with 16 points and six rebounds. Sophomore Blake Morrow added 14 points, six rebounds and three steals.
“I’m so proud of these guys to get the school here for the first time,” first-year coach Joe Whelton says. “For the seniors I’m just really happy that they had a chance to play in this atmosphere. And for the younger ones I hope they learn from it and try and get back here.”
The Blazers finished the season 18-9, having won their third-consecutive district championship and first regional championship.
“It was a great experience just to get to Lakeland,” Morrow says. “Looking to the future to the next two or three years with these guys, I feel like we have a bright future and it’s just going to get better from here.
We could be a very good basketball team the next two or three years,” Morrow says. “It just depends on if we take the time out of our day to get better. If we really want to do it, the sky’s the limit.”
Sarasota Christian loses two seniors from this year’s starting lineup in Josh Yoder and Lance Helmuth; but with the rest of the Blazers’ roster returning, the future looks bright for a Sarasota Christian team whose main focus this season was coming together and changing the way it approached the game.
“Starting a long time ago when we got in the gym, we tried to change the culture and be competitive in practice,” Whelton says. “We wanted them to be held accountable for their intensity and their energy in practice, and I think that helps us in a game like this.
“That’s why it was so important to play in this kind of an atmosphere because it makes us want to work harder,” Whelton says. “It makes you want to win a state championship. And that’s what we want.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].