Monday, December 11, 2006

Still, nobody's case for No. 1 is stronger than Lakeland's


I sure hope that, like me, you were able to watch No. 1 Lakeland's unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) 45-42 double-overtime win over regionally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas for the Florida Class 5A championship last Friday night.

There was so much to see.

And so much to say about what was seen.

Forget about the FHSAA's investigation into Chris Rainey's alleged confession (an alleged confession? Wow) to taking gifts and possibly cash from one or more of his fellow Lakelanders. The ultimate fate of Lakeland's perfect season and state championship title are a seperate matter. For now, at least.

But what about the game ... You know, the one in which Lakeland was dominating, leading 21-0 at the half and 35-14 with just over 2 minutes left to play. That's 2 minutes left to play in the game.

Aquinas, which has lost to Lakeland in the state championship game three consecutive times, battled back to score 21 points in less than two minutes, aided by two onside kick recoveries.

There are so many ways you can go with the way this game unfolded. And all of them are probably valid.

You can make the case that Lakeland was almost the victim of what was a flukey comeback. Had Rainey not broke free for his last touchdown from 55 yards out (making it 35-14), the Dreadnaughts could have held the ball and run off more clock. Aquinas might not have even got the ball back.

But you could also rightly question how a team ranked No. 1 in the nation -- that makes a living playing tough defense -- could fall apart like a cheap suit in the final minutes like that.

Look at it from as many angles as you want, but remember this: The only result that really matters is the scoreboard. Lakeland won the game. Just like they did the 44 games before it.

Win or lose, the questions are already starting to fill my email inbox. Most sound someting like "Do you think Lakeland is really the most deserving team to be ranked No. 1?"

I do. Here's why.

Championships are not about perfection. Not every championship team is pristine. This Lakeland team had its flaws. Probably more flaws than last year's squad that finished No. 2 in the National Prep Poll. But this year, being slightly more flawed than last year is probably going to be good enough to finish the season ranked No. 1.

Every season is different. And no team is perfect. Even the 1985 Chicago Bears were less than immaculate on one side of the ball.

Sports might not be only about winning -- so they certainly are not about being perfect, either. Especially not in high school football. If perfect is what you seek, try bowling, where rolling a 300 is as good as it gets every single time.

Though not infallible, no team accomplished more than Lakeland did this season. The Dreadnaughts played the entire season with a target on their backs that no team would envy. As defending USA Today national champions, more times than not Lakeland got the best shot from every team it faced. In essence, the Dreadnaughts raised the level of play of every team they played. That's why so few teams go undefeated three seasons in a row.

True, it's easy to pick apart the negative aspects of what Lakeland didn't do. They blew out fewer teams that last season. They allowed St. Thomas Aquinas to score 35 in the fourth quarter and tie the game. Focusing on the negative is commonplace in our culture. The showbiz parlance is that "sex sells." Well, in journalism (including sports journalism) it's negativity that sells.

But let's look at the positive. Let's describe how incredibly well Lakeland played through adversity this season. Lakeland's 2005 season almost seemed too easy to believe. Only one game decided by less than 14 points.

But 2006 wasn't as easy, and that's a feather in Lakeland's cap. Their four wins in games decided in the closing minutes (including two overtime wins over regionally ranked teams) are a testament to the playmakers in the Dreadnaughts' lineup.

Here is how columnist Roy Fuoco of the Lakeland Ledger described the "it" that this team had: "Some teams wilt under the overwhelming momentum the opposing team has. Players often start pointing fingers, looking for a teammate to blame. The Dreadnaughts hung tough ... The entire team came together on the final play (versus St. Thomas Aquinas), and not just the swarm of defensive players who held together to make the stop. On the sidelines, players were holding hands."

''It says a lot about the experience and poise of this senior group,'' Lakeland coach Bill Castle told the Ledger. ''Hey, what a senior class to make a run with 45 in a row. I'd have to say this is probably the most talented senior class that I've ever had.''

  • Lakeland started the season ranked No. 2 in the National Prep Poll. Its credentials for that lofty national ranking were undisputable: Back-to-back 5A state titles and 30 consecutive wins. A senior class that boasts 10 bona fide Division I prospects, including a whopping eight who are committed to Southeastern Conference colleges.

  • Lakeland finished the year with those same credentials, and then some: Three consecutive 5A crowns and 45 consecutive wins. The same 10 future Division I players still in the senior class, though Jordan Hammond (LSU) missed the year with a knee injury.

  • Lakeland is also the only team in the Top 25 to defeat a nationally or regionally ranked team from another state -- Cincinnati St. Xavier, in a game played in Cincinnati.

  • Seven of Lakeland's 15 wins came against teams with at least nine wins.

So, scars and all, Lakeland has accomplished all that sat before it when the season started.

And that, my friends, was quite a lot.

1 comment:

JustAFloridaBoy said...

I must concur, however I am tired of hearing about Northwestern being better than Lakeland, or that they may be able to beat them. It never stops. There has always been, and apparently will always be those who think they can beat Lakeland just by looking at the way they play other teams. Yet, when they line-up on the field they soon realize it is not as easy as it looks from the stands, or on TV. Lakeland has played many teams (STA, Mainland, Kathleen, etc.) that are just as talented as them and/or Northwestern, with better quarterbacks, however, the result is always the same; Lakeland Wins! The mind-boggling thing is this, Lakeland has a simple run-oriented offense that every team knows about, but is still unable to stop. What is even more amazing is the fact that this run offense scores just as fast as any passing offenses. Furthermore, on the other side of the ball, they have a defense that can create and capitalize on turnovers, as well as special teams.

Now, I will outline my argument against Northwestern. The fact that NW is the first school to win a Florida state title without leaving its own county, or city for that matter, says it all. I think it is ridiculous that any team would consider themselves for a national title, or think that they have a legit argument for the state’s all-class title, when at best; all they have proven is that they are “City Champs”; with the exception of the championship game against Lake Brantley, they basically played the same sorry (Miami) teams in the playoff that they blowout during the season. Therefore, how can they consider themselves to be the all- classification state champs? In addition to that, they play in 6A, which everyone in the state knows is the weakest classification, even more so before the 1A and 2A split. I mean, how competitive can that classification be when the Southern bracket comprises of teams in the Greater Miami/Ft. Lauderdale Area, and the Northern bracket is the rest of the state, particularly Sarasota, Orlando, and Jacksonville area. They don’t even play the traditionally good teams in their area during the season, like STA, Monsignor Pace, Chaminade-Madonna, Deerfield Beach, or Washington Booker T. Yet, they want to call out Lakeland, give me a break. Northwestern is just a cheap imitation of Belle Glade Central and you saw what happens to a team that just relies on raw talent without good coaching or discipline in South Carolina.

Now my argument for Lakeland is this, they played a schedule that not only included a national power, but they also played competitive teams from 3A, 4A, 5A, and 6A (talk about all-classification). Secondly, they played the traditionally top teams in their area, Lakeland Kathleen and Lakeland Lake Gibson, and just for kicks, they play Tampa Hillsborough in the Kickoff Classic (though cancelled this year due to weather) and Bradenton Manatee (5A semi-finalist) in their spring game. The only reason they don’t play Armwood is because Armwood would rather not play them (anymore), if you check the history books of the late 80’s and 90’s you will see why. Thirdly, they played a schedule of which teams representing different areas of the state, Tampa, Daytona, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Kissimmee, Port St. Lucie, Venice, and had they not played in Ohio they would have played Cape Coral. In addition to that, the team NW played in the final was in no way comparative to the one Lakeland played, as was the case in Ohio when Lakeland played St. Xavier and De La Salle played an Elder team that finished the season (6-4). However, that’s another issue altogether. Lastly, Lakeland beat more state ranked and higher Beef O’ Brady Top 25 ranked teams than NW, also many teams Lakeland beat had significant wins over good teams, and only lost to other good teams.

• STA (12-2) (beat Coconut Creek (11-2), Atlantic (10-2), & Manatee (9-5)) only lost to Lakeland & Deerfield Beach (8-3)
• Mainland (13-1)(beat Madison Co (10-3) & Bartram Trail (10-3)) only lost to Lakeland
• Kathleen (9-3) (beat Miami Monsignor Pace (9-2) & Cocoa (9-2)) only lost to Lakeland, Lake Gibson & Hardee (11-2)
• Lake Gibson (10-3) beat (Kathleen & Winter Haven) only lost to Lakeland twice & Tampa Riverview (8-2)
• Winter Haven (9-3) (beat Armwood (11-2) & Bartow (10-4)) only lost to Lakeland, Lake Gibson, & Tampa Plant (15-0, 4A Champ)
• St. Xavier (10-2) (beat St. Edwards (12-2)) only lost to Lakeland & Colerain (13-1) All national competition
• Kissimmee Osceola (7-3) only lost to Lakeland, Lake Gibson & Orlando Edgewater (10-2, 6A #1 at the time)

Ironically, the only trash on Lakeland’s regular season schedule was Venice, George Jenkins, St. Lucie West Centennial (who held their own against Lake Brantley which only scored 10 point on them while LHS score 38 in the 1st half.) and the two garbage teams from Miami (Norland & Dr. Krop). Moreover, no team in Miami beat Norland or Dr. Krop as bad as Lakeland; these two teams were actually competitive in Miami, go figure.

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