Commentary | Groundwork for Southeast state title was set back in November

Seeds of Noles' title season sown in November

February 26, 2014 

BRADENTON

There were two key moments in Southeast's run to the girls state basketball title.

Seminoles head coach John Harder talked about the first as he sat staring at the nets his girls just cut down Tuesday when they were honored by the school before a packed gymnasium of more than 2,500 fans.

The hall of fame coach has an undying love for basketball and the girls he has coached during his three decades at Southeast.

So you might wonder why he looked as if he lost his best friend when he stared at that net on the west side of the gym.

"We had the same nets all season, and it started with that one," Harder recalled. "Janelle Gould made a shot at the buzzer on that basket to give us the win over Port Charlotte. We had lost to Sarasota the previous game, and I thought I had lost the seniors. Janelle hits that shot. I take them to Applebee's to celebrate and it was a great bonding."

The victory over Port Charlotte on Nov. 25 was the beginning of a 28-game win streak that never ended. Southeast finished the season at 31-1 with its triumph over Fort Walton Beach Choctawatchee in Saturday's state final.

The groundwork for those final two wins at the state final four was set in the Noles' region final overtime victory at Cape Coral.

Harder was grateful for the win, but not pleased about how his kids played. They blew an eight-point lead in the final minute and a half of regulation when their vaunted defense allowed four layups.

You don't see Harder yell much, but later the following week he did when he showed his team the video of the Cape Coral game.

"I told the girls if we don't play better it will be a short stay at the final four," Harder said. "Our win against Cape Coral won the state championship because I had a hard week of practice with them. I was adamant about the fact that we could've done better and if they played that way it was going to be short trip to state."

Harder is a nice guy, maybe a little too nice at times. But you coach for 30 years and you build memories that you don't want to repeat, so maybe you insert a little tough love into your game plan.

The state title ended a decadelong nightmare for Harder, who won state championships in 1985 and 1990.

In 2003, his Southeast team was one of the best in the state with three girls who went to the University of Florida and two others who played Division I.

They were matched up Jacksonville Ribault, ranked first the country in several publications with four consecutive state titles under its belt.

There was no other team in the state that could've beaten the '03 Noles, but they drew Ribault.

"Ribault was introduced as the potential fifth state championship team. We were in warmups, and the announcer was talking about them already having won the game," Harder said.

Southeast took Ribault down to the wire. In the final seconds, Depree Bowden had a layup on a drive that everyone thought tied the game. Instead, the official called a charge. It was the kind of play that got Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim notoriety in a loss to Duke last weekend.

Harder doesn't have the pull of a Boeheim, so he lived with the call for more than a decade.

"She did not charge. The defender moved. They hadn't called a charge all game," Harder recalled. "That call has been with me for 10 or 11 years and finally I lost track of it Saturday."

Harder has been to the region final 10 times and won five. Those five losses sting, none more than a 44-43 loss to Winter Haven in '02 and 61-56 to Tampa Catholic in '10.

A lot of the pain from those defeats was brushed away Tuesday.

The crowning moment of the day came when the gymnasium erupted into a chorus of "Harder, Harder, Harder" for what seemed like an eternity.

"I've never had that happen to me. I've been in this for 40 years and to have two thousand people yelling my name, I was taken aback," Harder said. "I am excited that the mayor would show up, the superintendent of schools and people from the main office, administrators that know what you are doing in the classroom and athletic field is a compliment to the county. We just presented the trophy to the high school, and that is not done that often."

One person not surprised at the chorus of Harder chants was Southeast's leading scorer, DeAngela Mathis.

"All the students love him. He is different," Mathis said with a smile.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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