A lazy pass along the perimeter was the perfect prey for Damien Gordon, and the guard was off.
Gordon hopped into the passing lane and poked Venice’s mistake into the backcourt, where he could chase it. There were no Indians near, only Gordon’s teammate, Devin Twenty, who stood in the paint as Gordon soared for Lakewood Ranch’s first dunk of the year.
As Gordon floated back to the gymnasium floor at Lakewood Ranch High School, Twenty clenched his fists, pointed them to the ground and cried out in celebration. The Mustangs were running away with what ended up a 29-point win last month and putting another highlight on the board. No one was celebrating more than Lakewood Ranch’s leading scorer and starting point guard.
“It was a neat moment,” head coach Jeremy Schiller said earlier this week. “When you watch our kids play and someone else makes the play, there’s joy, and when you look at other high school teams it isn’t always like that. They like each other.”
This sort of mentality has been fostered during the past two seasons by the Mustangs, a period in which they’ve gone from being a solid, district contender and become one of the top teams in all of Florida. Entering Wednesday’s game against North Port, Twenty led Lakewood Ranch (11-2) with 12.1 points per game. Gordon was right behind him at 12.0.
Scoring distribution Devin Twenty: 12.1 points per game Damien Gordon: 12.0 Sam Hester: 9.7 Jack Kelley: 8.3 Brock Sisson: 6.9 Evan Spiller: 6.4 Stats accurate through Jan. 3
Eight players have appeared in every game this season and two others have played in all but one or two. Eight players are also averaging at least one assist per game and the Mustangs have six players averaging between 6.4 and 12.1 points per game. Guard Sam Hester, who has led Lakewood Ranch in scoring during each of his first three season, is now third and averaging fewer than 10 points per game.
“We knew we had to create a style that gave us the best opportunity to win our district, win a region, win a state championship,” Schiller said. “We could win games with our other style, but you wouldn’t win championships with our other style.”
The Mustangs’ foundation begins with a trio of seniors: Twenty, Hester and Justin Muscara. All three have played for Lakewood Ranch’s varsity team since their freshman year, although they were teammates well before then.
Since sixth grade, the three have shared the court with Manatee Basketball Club (MBC) Elite and developed into three of Manatee County’s best players in the Class of 2017, most often sitting back in a 2-3 zone and playing with a slow tempo.
It was the same style Schiller used during the current senior class’ first two seasons with the Mustangs, too. As he built Lakewood Ranch from a program fighting for win totals in the double digits during his first two seasons into a perennial 20-win team, he didn’t have the depth to run the wide-open offense and pressure defense that has defined the Mustangs during the past two years. Before last season, he switched to the system he finds his ideal.
“We’ve always slowed it down,” Hester said. “It’s something new.”
Schiller could see the future of his program when his current seniors were sophomores. Guards Blauvelt Georges, Cameron Lindblad, Kodey Elliott and Brock Sisson were coming along to form a Class of 2017 core with Hester, Twenty and Muscara. Gordon, Evan Spiller and Jack Kelley were freshmen at the time, and were ready to contribute on varsity as sophomores.
The turn seemed obvious. Slowing the game down makes every game more competitive, and Lakewood Ranch’s mix of depth and talent was a clear advantage. There’s no one player to scout with players able to go from a supporting role one day to a starring role the next.
“I’m not going to lie, there was some doubts,” said Muscara, a starting forward for the Mustangs, “but at that point you’ve got to just buy into it and it worked, so you can’t really knock it.”
The bulk of Lakewood Ranch’s rotation during any given game could be found on the court at either Carlos E. Haile Middle School or Braden River Middle School during their annual clashes from 2011-2013.
They met twice each year when the Mustangs’ current senior class was in seventh and eighth grade. Those who were on the frontlines for those two seasons fondly remember them as classics.
“That was probably one of the most competitive middle school years,” Muscara said. “It was crazy.”
Muscara was on the losing end of the most epic clashes. He and Sisson were two of the stars for Nolan, and the closest thing to a challenge for Twenty, Hester, Georges and Gordon at Braden River. They met in the championship game in back-to-back season. One game was decided on a last-second 3-pointer from the corner by Hester, which hit just about every part of the rim.
The kids we were getting before came to Lakewood Ranch and ended up playing basketball. The kids we get now come to Lakewood Ranch to play basketball and I think that's the difference in the mindset in being consistently good for a long time is people want to go to your school to play basketball.
Jeremy Schiller, Lakewood Ranch head coach
At some point, just about everyone on Lakewood Ranch has been teammates or opponents, whether it was in middle school or Amateur Athletic Union. By the time the current seniors were in eighth grade it clicked: The foundation was in place to win a 2017 state championship. They’ve talked about it every year since.
“Over the years it was just easier to play with each other,” Twenty said, “which makes us win a lot.”
At any given Mustangs home game, one slogan fills the gym.
#WEFOR3. The hashtag is printed on shirts for fans and fired out on Schiller’s Twitter page a few times each week with a pair of meanings. Lakewood Ranch is aiming for three titles — Class 8A-District 11, Class 8A-Region 3 and Class 8A — and each 3 the Mustangs sink is a collective effort from everyone in the community.
When Schiller took over Lakewood Ranch’s head coach, he dedicated himself to making the Mustangs one of the county’s premier powers. He implemented a thorough offseason regimen, which included about 20 games during June this past summer and youth camps to serve as a natural pipeline.
But Schiller needed one group to set the standard for what Lakewood Ranch can be. The Mustangs are more than halfway to their third straight 20-win season and have yet to lose to another team from Florida. They captured a district title last year and fell one win shy of a region championship. Advancing further this winter has become the expectation.
“They’re laying a foundation that’s going to last for 30 years. This winning isn’t going to stop,” Schiller said. “We’re not expecting it to nosedive. We’re expecting to be consistently one of the top teams in the county, if not the state, every year.”