Even though the Lakewood Ranch High boys basketball players were given a huge ovation following their 64-61 overtime loss to Riverdale High (17-8) in the regional quarterfinals, the show of support couldn’t mend the wounds.
It was the first home loss for the Mustangs since December 2015, and it came with the program’s all-time leading scorer, senior Damien Gordon, out with a back injury he suffered earlier in the week. A 12-point comeback in the fourth quarter made it seem like Lakewood Ranch would survive, but the team’s magic evaporated in the extra session.
The team was emotional, and so was its coach, Jeremy Schiller, who hugged his players through tears.
The emotions of the evening didn’t stop Schiller from thinking about what comes next.
"I'm a coach, so the first thing you do is deal with it," Schiller said. "Digest it and move on. I don't do vacations. This next group of guys deserves to use this as a motivating factor, to get past this moment. When you build a program to the level I feel like we have, the future is always bright.
"There's a ton of talent in this program. There's great kids and great parents, and a great basketball community following us. Right now it hurts, but we'll be figuring out how to get to work in the next few days."
“I had no words in the locker room,” Kelley said. “We just hugged and cried a little bit. I’m still going to see them tomorrow, but we would have loved to win a ring together.”
The Mustangs return guards Keon Buckley and Christian Shaneyfelt and forward Joshua Young, all three of whom received starting experience at times this year. Those three should be formidable scoring trio for Lakewood Ranch, and other returning players like Mark Caraher and Christian Perez should provide productive minutes.
Those players have historic shoes to fill. They follow the legacy of departing seniors Gordon, Jack Kelley and Evan Spiller, plus Andrew Dean, who joined the varsity team this season.
This was the second of the two senior classes that lead the Mustangs’ turnaround. They went 94-21 in their four years.
Kelley will never forget them.
"Everyone on this team, I love," Kelley said. "They love me. It's a bond I'm going to have forever. It can't be taken away from me. Win or lose, they are my brothers. That is the best thing about this (team). We have a culture that I have never seen before in high school. I love dunking and scoring and all that, but not as much as my brothers.”
Kelley voice went muffled as he gave an embrace to Buckley. He then got the attention of the program’s student assistants and told them they were appreciated.
When it came to Gordon and Spiller, Kelley again was left shaking his head.
“I had no words in the locker room,” he said. “We just hugged and cried a little bit. I’m still going to see them tomorrow, but we would have loved to win a ring together.”
Minutes before, Eric Spiller, Evan’s father, thanked Schiller for everything he had done for his son.
“I told him he’s going to have to share him with me,” Schiller said. “These are my kids, too. Evan and Jack, I’ve known since they were in seventh grade. They used to come to our camps. Damien came around the camps in eighth grade.
“You grow so much with them and you want to give them everything, like you do with your own kids. That's what they are like for me. That's why this is so challenging, because I feel like I wasn't able to give them what they deserved."
Kelley tried to make sense of what happened, but he was mostly left shaking his head. He said the team came out flat and that Riverdale’s deliberate pace threw the Mustangs off their game. Riverdale deserved to win, he said.