The enormity of playing in a state semifinal basketball game was motivation enough.
But the Lakewood Ranch High Mustangs had another inspiration Friday at the RP Funding Center.
It was written on their warmup shirts prior to facing Fleming Island: #JackStrong.
The message is in reference to former Mustangs basketball player Jack Kelley, who was a member of the 2017 state final four team and is in intensive care after suffering traumatic brain injuries related to a horrific car accident on Feb. 28 during which his car flipped several times and took out part of a wall to a hotel pool.
The driver of the vehicle that struck Kelley’s car is out on bond after he was arrested last weekend for ”leaving the scene of a crash and driving without a license,” according to Bay News 9.
“It’s definitely been weighing on our minds,” Lakewood Ranch head coach Jeremy Schiller said. “... Right now he’s in a hospital bed recovering, but his dad texted me (Friday) morning because he goes, ‘I know Jack would have texted you.’
“I think for these guys, that gets lost in the moment that’s one of their brothers that’s been injured. And for their ability as teenagers and young men to do their job in a time that’s pretty emotional at different times. ... His dad told us to go win it for Jack, so we’re going to do our best to make that happen.”
Lakewood Ranch (23-6) cruised past Orange Park Fleming Island with a 60-38 victory thanks to suffocating defense and sharpshooting offense.
It added up to a quick start that yielded a 23-point halftime lead, giving the Mustangs a chance to make history with their first shot at securing a boys basketball state title when they return to the RP Funding Center on Saturday.
The Mustangs face defending champion Pompano Beach Blanche Ely, a 56-54 winner over Windermere, for the 8A title at 4:30 p.m.
“This has taken a lot of work to get it to where it’s at,” said Schiller, who is in his eighth season as coach of the Mustangs. “I’m happy these guys get to be on the journey. But part of it is seeing the community coming together. And not just for the basketball part, but the Jack Kelley part of it. We did shirts and we sold out of 98 shirts in about four hours, and all the money is going to Jack’s family.”
Fleming Island (21-3) held its lone lead after making the game’s first basket.
Lakewood Ranch’s Christian Shaneyfelt, who misfired on his first field goal attempt, was lights out, converting 9 of 11 attempts for a game-high 21 points. His offensive performance was part of Lakewood Ranch’s hot shooting as a collective unit. The Mustangs shot 66.7 percent from the field, building an 11-point lead heading into the second quarter.
“They were poised,” Fleming Island head coach Traavis Chandler said. “They hit some tough shots, we had some defensive breakdowns but they just kept going and weren’t missing.”
A key to Lakewood Ranch’s dominance was forcing 13 turnovers, blocking six shots and controlling the glass. The Mustangs limited Fleming Island to few second-chance opportunities. The Mustangs outrebounded Fleming Island 32-18.
“It’s just a matter of energy,” said senior Joshua Young, who had 10 points and eight rebounds. “Everybody was hyped up for the game, so we came out ready to just punch them in the mouth and go at it.”
Also giving the Mustangs a boost was the strong turnout from their student section that made the trip to Lakeland.
“We come out trying to bring our own energy, but when a couple hundred other people are cheering for you to do what we do, it just hypes us up that much more,” junior guard Christian Perez said.
Added Young: “Especially since they’re loyal, too. It’s not just one game they come to, they come to all the games and really care.”
This is the second time in three years Lakewood Ranch has made it to the state final four. The Mustangs were eliminated in the semifinals to eventual champion Tampa Sickles in 2017.
The 2019 team already has gone further than any previous Lakewood Ranch boys basketball team.
On Saturday, they have a chance to cement their legacy.
History awaits at 4:30 p.m.