- November 16, 2022
Carl Williams turned and stared at the Booker High gymnasium rafters.
"All you have to do is look up," he said. "You see a national championship and state championships. There's tradition here. We want (our players) to understand that, man, they're part of something special. It has to be special."
Williams is the Tornadoes' third boys basketball coach in three seasons. He's a veteran of the Sarasota-Manatee coaching scene, having previously done stints with, among others, the Riverview High and Sarasota High girls programs. Most recently, Williams was the boys coach at the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences. Wherever he's been, he's won; Williams has amassed more than 200 varsity wins in his coaching career.
Williams has the pedigree to turn around the Tornadoes, whose fortunes have wildly fluctuated over the last handful of seasons. As recently as 2017-2018, under coach Markus Black, the Tornadoes reached the FHSAA state Final Four.
In 2021-2022, the team went 4-22.
Williams' first priority after taking over in August — a late start for a coach — was letting his players know he wasn't going anywhere, and neither was his staff. It's tough for high school players to win with constant coaching turnover, with different people asking them to do different things and play different ways. Williams said he wants to lock onto what made Booker great back when those rafters were hung. The Tornadoes won the 1966-1967 national title and have won five state championships, most recently in 2005-2006. To get back, Williams said, the Tornadoes will need to play hard-nosed defense — something that always comes before good offense — but also bring passion and fun to the floor.
"Sometimes with young teams, the lights turn on for a game and the kids put undue stress on themselves," Williams said. "We need to get to the point where they realize it's the same thing, games and practice."
Pressure might have handed the Tornadoes a loss on Tuesday night. Booker hosted North Port High and found itself down 8-0 to start the game. The Tornadoes were rushing shots and not getting any to fall. Eventually, that changed, and the rest of the quarter — and the next three — saw the teams play even: Booker trailed by eight, 38-30, entering the fourth quarter.
That's when the Tornadoes turned things around. A breakneck run to start the quarter, spurred by steals and put-backs off missed shots, saw Booker tie the game at 40 with six minutes left in the game. The gym got raucous. The players, like their coach wanted, were playing with passion and a lack of pressure.
But as quickly as the Tornadoes were able to tie it, they let it slip. The Bobcats went on a 13-6 run to end the game and won 53-46. Booker now stands at 1-3 on the season, the win coming in the Nov. 21 season opener against Riverview High. Williams said the team could be, and perhaps should be, 3-1, but tiny mistakes and lapses in concentration add up.
He's confident the team Booker fans see at the end of the season will win games like the North Port contest. The only returning Tornadoes player to get significant minutes on the varsity team is junior guard Jovan Palavra, a sticky defender. Even two of the team's seniors, Eliseo Dawkins and Johari Jones, are new, coming over from Sarasota Military Academy. The team is also giving significant minutes to freshmen such as wing/forward J.P. Lattimore, who led the team with 13 points in the Riverview win. Getting this group of players to gel together will help the team immensely, Williams said.
"It's a nice little melting pot right now," Williams said. "We're going to get it. It's just going to take some time."
Williams said it with a smile, an embodiment of how he wants his team to play: cool, calm, collected and enthusiastic. With that attitude, the Tornadoes hope to add another addition to their gym's rafters soon enough.