Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
Beignets and jazz music.
That is what the Lakewood Ranch boys basketball team said it will remember most about its trip to New Orleans for the Allstate Sugar Bowl National Prep Classic from Jan. 2-4. Not basketball, but eating the little pockets of sugar, dough and magic, while listening to the smooth sounds of live bands.
“It was so delicious,” junior guard Christian Perez said.
It was almost even more memorable: One day, a street performer was looking for a “rich old man” to use in a comedy bit. The team urged coach Jeremy Schiller to volunteer, but he declined.
“Guys, I am neither of those things,” Schiller told them as he declined.
They did not care. They just wanted a laugh.
The 2018-2019 Mustangs know how to walk the line between fun and serious, just like their predecessors. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Lakewood Ranch is how much it has stayed the same, on the court and in the locker room, year after year.
After graduating their top-three players — Damien Gordon, Jack Kelley and Evan Spiller — to graduation, the Mustangs would not have been blamed for taking a step back. They have not. As of Jan. 14, Lakewood Ranch is 10-4 after a grueling first half of the season that included two big tournaments, the Kingdom of the Sun in Ocala in December, where the Mustangs went 3-1 won the consolation championship, and the New Orleans tournament, where they went 1-2 but faced teams like Bishop Loughlin High, MaxPreps’ top-ranked team in New York. (The Mustangs lost 56-31 to Bishop Loughlin.)
The Mustangs have a new big three now, and they mirror the guys that graduated. Junior guard Christian Shaneyfelt is like Gordon, quiet but with great athleticism and a propensity for making impact plays. Senior forward Josh Young reminds me of Kelley, a dominant post presence on both sides of the floor. Junior Keon Buckley is charismatic like Spiller, and a consistent scorer, too.
In a road game against rival Braden River High on Jan. 8, the Mustangs proved their prowess. Buckley scored a career-high 30 points, many of which followed Pirates' turnovers. Braden River could do nothing offensively against Lakewood Ranch’s 1-3-1 zone. Young added 11 points, and Shaneyfelt had the exclamation mark, a put-back jam (and a slight hanging on the rim) that sent the Mustangs’ cheering section into a tizzy.
There’s depth beyond that trio, too, like Perez, a spark plug who is constantly around the ball on defense. He had nine points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Pirates.
That the program’s culture, one where the players feel comfortable being themselves and having fun, has persisted despite the roster turnover is testament to Schiller's leadership. He took over a program that was floundering and made it a consistent contender without sacrificing the kids’ ability to, you know, be kids.
"As the coach of a program, I love that words like 'brotherhood' and 'culture' are words we hear every year, and they mean it," Schiller said. "That is important to me. At the end of the day, the wins and losses melt away. It is more about the relationships these guys have."
So now, the Mustangs are concerned with playing their best as the playoffs approach (they begin Feb. 11), but they are also concerned with winning other things, like intra-squad “Mario Kart” tournaments, in which Young and senior forward Max Corsiglia are the favorites. They will poke at junior guard Luke LeCroy for not knowing what to do on his first airplane ride ("Right before we took off, he goes, 'Should I have my mouth open or closed?" junior forward Carter Chapin said).
I asked the group if there was anything else they wanted people to know.
“I love this team!” senior forward Dylan Wellard said.
The team hooted and hollered. That more or less says it all.