Heading into the 2018-19 season, there were questions about how the Lakewood Ranch High School boys basketball team would respond after losing several key players to graduation.
Any of those questioning the Mustangs were silenced by the halfway point of the season when it was apparent that Lakewood Ranch was on its way to at least another Class 8A-District 11 title.
The group went on to emulate the 2017 team that advanced to the Final Four and is the same team that coach Jeremy Schiller says gave the school a real basketball identity.
“The culture was created eight years ago, but that 2017 team was the first one that really won consistently,” said Schiller, whose team faces Fleming Island in the 8A state semifinals on Friday.
“They were able to commit to doing everything that we asked at a really high level. They would even tell you that they broke down some of my barriers and made me a better coach and we enjoyed every single moment together.
“Sometimes my seriousness wasn’t there and the 2017 group passed that torch down to enjoy the moments.”
Lakewood Ranch (23-6) opened with five straight wins before losing a pair of games heading into the Kingdom of the Sun and the Allstate Sugar Bowl tournaments during the holiday break.
The Mustangs played seven games during an eight-day span at one time, which gave the Mustangs time to figure out who they were: a team with a suffocating defense that could win with 60 points a game.
“I think we found ourselves there,” Schiller said. “We found that we were going to be a little more gritty and a little different than we have been in the past when we averaged around 76 points per game. When it was just us and basketball over the holidays, it helped us grow together.”
“That’s when we found it … and it’s been history ever since,” senior Keon Buckley added.
Buckley is the only remaining player on the roster from that 2017 team. Buckley, who wears No. 20 in honor of former Mustang Devin Twenty, said his previous experience of taking part in a Final Four is something his current team can lean on.
“Just like everything else we’re going to go in excited and ready to play,” he said. “Last year we didn’t play as well as we should have because we were looking ahead. Now we’re just focusing one game at a time.”
Christian Shaneyfelt, who led the Mustangs with 23 points in their 57-47 regional title win over Tarpon Springs East Lake, said he knew the team had a chance to be special after they beat a tough Sarasota Riverview team while he was out with an illness.
Those hard-nosed victories brought back shades of recent memory for the Mustangs.
“We learned from how hard they played all the time,” Shaneyfelt said of the 2017 team. “That’s been the culture here and we want to keep that going.”
Lakewood Ranch cemented its run to the Final Four with a 12-1 burst to close the regional semifinal against Fort Myers Riverdale and a 10-0 stretch to put away the regional title game against East Lake.
That could serve them well in Friday’s 8A state semifinal against Fleming Island (22-2).
“It’s a whole season of getting ready for the Final Four,” Schiller said. “It’s been really cool and I wish people could be in our locker room and at practices to see how special these kids are.
“It’s just an amazing group of young men and I love that they can be great kids of high character and still be tough in big moments. Not everybody can do that.”
What’s also clear is that Lakewood Ranch players aren’t feeling any added pressure heading into Friday’s game, which is scheduled to tip off at 2 p.m. at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
“I look at every basketball game as just another basketball game,” senior Josh Young said. “The stakes might be higher, but it’s just another basketball game. We’ll have to play like we always have and just get things done.”