BRADENTON -- At first it was just an idea.
Now it's a commitment that has exceeded John Harder's wildest dreams.
When the Southeast High girls basketball coach asked a few members at his Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Holmes Beach to come to one of his basketball games he was just trying to drum up support for his players.
It has turned into family whose members have no limits when it comes to supporting the girls, showering them with gifts and other things to make their travels through life just a little smoother.
"We do it because it is the thing to do," church pastor Rosemary Wheeler Backer said. "We have adopted them. We feel they need to have a good support system to cheer them on and fully encourage them to go to college. We see this is a ministry to be with them and encourage them."
The church holds a special place for Harder in ways that extend beyond the basketball court. He met his current wife Rhonda there in 2007 when she was the Sunday School superintendent and he sang in the choir.
"I've always felt that the community should be involved in education and I have never been one to do Southeast girls basketball by myself," Harder said. "I am always preaching to my team that you need to attend church and that church and family come before basketball and John Harder. I want to live by example and do what I say. The church has always been a strong thing in my life."
On the basketball court it doesn't seem like Harder needs a lot of help. He is the second winningest high school basketball coach in Florida and has won three state championships.
"The church is our second family; They do everything that we need them to do. We are very grateful to have them," said senior and leading scorer Breyonna Reed. "They give us Christmas gifts and support us in so many ways. We enjoy them a lot."
For Harder coaching is a lot more than just winning games. Through the years he has dealt with girls who have come from troubled homes and nearly every one of his players considers him a second father.
But the venerable coach admits he could use help and you might say the church has gone well beyond any obligation it might have.
"Never did I expect the support that I am getting nowadays, especially financially," Harder said. "I can't do some of the things I used to and they've taken over our Christmas party and this year bought all our girls warm-up suits that a lot of them wear around school."
The church also has fundraisers for the girls so they can attend summer camp. But among all the things that it does making the quilts holds a special place and is something every player looks forward to receiving,
Harder gives the church the names of each of his seniors in the fall and then the members go to work on the quilts that each girl receives after the season. Every quilt is the size of a bed. It has the Southeast logo in orange and blue squares, the record of the team that year, the girls name and any championships they won during the season.
"That is my favorite gift though I haven't received it yet," Reed said. "It is handmade and it means a lot to everyone and everybody looks forward to it. They take their time out of their day to make it step by step by step and it's useful."
Some of Harder's players don't open their gifts instead opting to put them under the Christmas tree because they've never had a Christmas present.
Backer and her members have also shown they are fighters who are not afraid to get controversial. A few years ago when the pastor thought her girls were getting unfairly harassed at a game at St. Pete Lakewood by the football players she contacted the governing body of high school sports in the state and lodged an official complaint.
"We felt the whole thing was handled poorly and the football players were being encouraged by their coach to harass the girls and let the state know about it," Backer said.
When Southeast won the girls state championship in 2014, the Seminoles had the biggest crowd of any the participants in part because of the Gloria Dei Lutheran members. It was their way of saying thanks to the girls for all the excitement they brought them.