The Southeast High girls basketball team was fresh off coach John Harder’s sixth Final Four appearance when A’moni Waiters and Daija Snipes were freshmen.
At the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, Harder took his pair of future stars to the Final Four so they’d get a first-hand look at what they’d be working for. What they weren’t expecting was a flat tire on the way home from Lakeland.
That day — minus the flat tire — proved to be a life changer for Waiters and Snipes and a springboard for one final title for Harder.
It was also the day that Harder told them they’d get there again by the time they were seniors. They’ll get that chance when they face Jacksonville Bishop Kenny (28-2) in Wednesday’s Class 6A state semifinals at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. The game is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.
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“We were sitting there scared to death on the side of I-4,” Harder said. “I didn’t know how to change a tire and had to call a state trooper to change it. I’m glad the principal gave us the day off to go and they’ve been wanting to go back ever since.”
“They’re actually going and it’s like we planned this,” he continued. “It’s like a dream that was supposed to happen.”
Harder wasn’t dreaming when he first saw Waiters, a center, and Snipes first come to the program. Waiters is the tallest player Harder has had since Trina Altman patrolled the paint nearly two decades ago and Snipes has been Southeast’s vocal leader for four years.
The Seminoles (26-4) finished as district runner-up for two years. Southeast has reeled off 15 straight wins since losing to 64-62 to Sarasota Booker in January. That streak includes four wins over St. Petersburg Lakewood, a team that returned three strong starters.
“They made a commitment that losing wasn’t going to happen again,” Harder said. “You could see that every game was better. That Booker loss catapulted us to the regional championship.”
Snipes said the work toward the Final Four began over the summer and into the fall.
“We’re a different team than we were at the beginning of the year and we’re a lot better,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of chemistry and heart and we always talked about what we had to do to get here.”
History could also be on Harder’s side as he makes his last appearance in the state finals. Back in that first season, Southeast beat St. Petersburg Gibbs 37-36 before going on to win Harder’s first state title. That was the same score as Southeast’s win over Booker in last week’s Class 6A-Region 3 final — a game that Harder said ended in similar fashion.
“All these years have passed, and here I stand with the same score and the same kind of energy,” Harder said. “I’m not tired at all even though I haven’t slept much. I’ll make it through this week and anything after that is icing on the cake.”
Harder’s emotional reaction to winning the regional title in the final game he’d ever coach on the court bearing his name at Southeast High was something his players took to heart. They’d love to let him experience that joy one last time.
“We know what happened for him in his first year, so for us to make this happen for his last year is the best feeling ever for us,” Waiters said. “When he walks in the locker room there’s so much joy on his face. To see our coach happy and cheering us on feels great. I’m just happy that he’s happy.”
Bishop Kenny did Harder a favor by knocking off postseason nemesis Jacksonville Ribault in the regional semifinals.
“We’ll see what Wednesday brings,” Harder said. “I’ve been looking forward to this … but I haven’t been telling anybody because I didn’t want to look ahead. I knew we had a shot to get there.”
Most of the Seminoles took part in a camp where games were played on collegiate-sized courts, which they’ll see at the RP Funding Center. Waters said the regional title win over Booker felt like a Final Four game. Snipes concurred.
“I think once we get a feel of that court we’re going to be decent,” she said. “I think we’re going all the way.”
A fourth state title (Southeast won state titles in 1985, 1990 and 2014) would close the book on a legendary career for Harder that also includes 22 district championships. His team has never finished below a district runner-up and has qualified for regionals every year he’s been at the helm. Harder plans on retiring at the end of the school year.
“This is a special team and a special year,” he said. “Somebody up there is watching out for John Harder. It’s been a wonderful ride and I’ve been so blessed with some great athletes at this school. I’ve come here every day for the last 35 years with a smile on my face. I’ve loved every minute of every day at Southeast High School.”