BRADENTON -- The Thursday after Bradenton Christian's Class 2A championship loss to Boca Raton Grandview Prep was familiar to the three most veteran Panthers. Senior guards Vincent Rehfeldt, Jake Lister and Ryan Leunk filed into the gymnasium at Bradenton Christian School with their teammates, and looked around at the pep rally for the memories which made this run so important.
The trio remembered being in fifth grade last time BCS reached the final four in 2009. Trips to Lakeland weren't an excused absence, so Rehfedt's mother didn't let him go watch the state semifinals, but he remembered watching the region and district tournaments. Lister remembered taking a similar walk -- his older brother was a player on the 2009 team and Lister was the water boy. Leunk looked to the sideline where the pep band was seated and remembered when he greeted a Panthers final four team with his trumpet.
All three have attended BCS since in elementary school. They witnessed much of Bradenton Christian's heyday first-hand as basketball-obsessed children. As the core of the Panthers' best season in nearly 20 years, three BCS lifers returned Bradenton Christian to relative glory.
"I remember being a little kid sitting over there, thinking they're the greatest thing, thinking one day I want to make it there," Lister said. "This whole experience was so surreal."
Although the Panthers have never won a state title, they built a reputation as one of the most successful programs in Manatee County beginning with a trip to the final in 1997. Former head coach Dave Magley took over the program in 2002 and led BCS to four more final fours during his 11 years in Bradenton.
Rehfeldt, Lister and Leunk were around campus to see three of these runs in person. Bradenton Christian played a similar style then to the one current head coach Scott Townsend, an assistant for Magley, had the Panthers playing this season.
BCS likes to find itself in scramble situations, where players have to make snap decisions and have an adept feel for the floor. It's a system heavily dependent on chemistry, and Rehfeldt, Lister and Leunk had built that chemistry for a decade.
"We built it around those three," Townsend said. "A lot of hours in this gym."
Rehfeldt, Lister and Leunk first became organized teammates at the YMCA during third grade, and have played together ever since. They were middle school teammates at Bradenton Christian, played four years together on varsity and spent the past summer as AAU teammates with the Bay City Ballers.
When they were young they played basketball during every recess and still spend their weekends playing pick-up games together. A Saturday practice for the Panthers typically lasts two hours, and then they'll spend two more playing smaller games with teammates or NBA video games in the locker room. Everyone has played enough basketball together to know what to expect of their teammates when they get out in transition.
Lister and Leunk know Rehfeldt is going to try to pull-up around the free throw line. Rehfeldt and Leunk know Lister is going to dash to the corner for a 3-point attempt. Rehfeldt and Lister know Leunk is going to cut to the rim for a layup. BCS can play a style nobody else can.
"There'll just be certain plays where everybody's sprinting full-speed down the court and you just know in your head that he's about to do this," Rehfeldt said, "and you throw the ball and he ends up being there."
When Rehfeldt, Lister and Leunk watched Bradenton Christian's last final-four team seven years ago, they thought of the legacy they would leave when they eventually followed in the team's footsteps. From the other side Thursday, they learned to appreciate the camaraderie a good basketball team brings to the school from the other side.
Ty Townsend, the head coach's son and the Panthers' team manager, is a fifth grader now and sat in the BCS locker room after Bradenton Christian's 87-63 loss to Grandview Prep on Wednesday in Lakeland. Townsend's
"What class are you graduating, Ty?" Leunk asked him after the game. Townsend told him 2023.
"You've better put a 23 up under there," Leunk told him. Back in the BCS gym Friday, Leunk motioned toward the wall of banners, where there still is the spot to honor a basketball state championship is still empty. "Right there," he said, "under the state championship banner."