Lake Minneola High School earned the school’s first trip to the boys basketball state semifinals with a 72-61 road win on Saturday against Lake Wales.
Hawks coach Freddie Cole has turned Lake Minneola into the state’s top Class 6A program, despite coaching at a school in only its third year of existence. Lake Minneola will play Ruskin Lennard at 4 p.m. Friday at the Lakeland Center.
A win will catapult the Hawks into Saturday’s state championship game.
But, to watch Lake Minneola as it prepared for Lake Wales, one might’ve guessed the Hawks were preparing for a mundane midseason game.
For example, Cole stood at the baseline with ball in hand during a recent practice. With an over-the-shoulder motion — the kind that would have left Peyton Manning in envy — he threw a completed pass to sophomore Drew Mendoza at half court for an apparent touchdown. Lake Minneola’s coaches set a tone at the beginning of practice that focused on keeping the players loose and having fun. The beginning of practice saw the players and coach attempting under-handed shots from half court.
“The more fun they have, the better we play,” said Cole. On paper, Lake Wales, with a record of 18-12, was the worst team Lake Minneola has faced in the playoffs. But Cole insists they aren’t taking the Highlanders lightly. Lake Minneola has been dominant this season, with a 27-3 record and winning by an average of 27 points per game. The most impressive win, arguably, was an 81-point victory against Umatilla. Lake Wales was no stranger to the postseason, unlike the Hawks. The Highlanders played in the Class 5A Regional finals last season. The Highlanders had more experience in the playoffs, but Cole was supremely confident in his players.
“Most of the guys have been here since the school opened,” Cole said. “They believe this is their year.”
Lennard Ruskin enters Friday’s state semifinal game with a 27-4 record. The Hawks use a five-guard setup most of the time, which features twin brothers — Avery and Anthony Brown — with a sixth sense of where each other is on the court.
“I know that when he is on the court it is easy to find him and get him easy buckets,” Avery Brown said. Just as important is the brothers’ ability to know where to move without the basketball.
“I’ve got to move around and I know where he likes the drive and penetrate, and I always get to the open spot based on who’s going to drive,” Anthony Brown said. The defense has been terrific all season for the Hawks and has allowed an average of 51 points per game.
“Our defense has been tremendous and we probably score half if not most of our points on good defense,” said Cole. Cole felt Saturday’s game showcased what the Hawks have been building toward over the last three years.
“Lake Wales has history, they truly do, but it’s our turn,” said Cole.
And now, the Hawks get to add to their own growing basketball legacy.