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Final loss doesn't diminish Lecanto's best-ever season

By KELLIE DIXON
Published February 27, 2007


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PORT ORANGE - Their eyes were red and glassed over, their faces splotchy.

Lecanto's 64-31 loss to Atlantic was still fresh on the minds of the Panther players Saturday night.

But not a single head dropped as the team trickled out of the locker room.

"I know I always say I don't like to count the games we win, but win the games that count," Lecanto coach Chris Nichols said. "But what a great year."

Rewind to the beginning of the season.

Sitting in the Panthers' locker room, the team discussed its season goals. It wanted to break the school record for wins, claim the district title and reach the elite eight.

It sounded good. But the Panthers had trouble finding firm believers outside of those walls.

"I know in my heart, at the beginning of the year when we said elite eight was our goal, the only guys that believed it were in our locker room," senior forward Jared Brantley said. "We were the only people that believed 100 percent that we were going to win."

Lecanto couldn't really blame the doubters. After all, the Panthers had graduated four starters from its 2006 district championship team. But Lecanto's taller returners had seen big minutes last season. They were ready.

"We believed in ourselves, and that's what mattered most." senior guard Victor Cortes said. "That's what got us so far. All the critics, we ignored them. We used them as motivation."

Brantley, Cortes, Bryan Hamer, Gregory Simerly and Colin Pugh - all seniors - assumed leadership roles on the team. Hamer 11.5 ppg, Brantley (11.2 ppg) and Cortes (10.1 ppg) led the Panthers in scoring. Brantley also led the squad in boards (5.8 rpg), while Simerly and Pugh each averaged around four rebounds a game. The underclassmen, led by Nick Cortes (9.5 ppg) and C.J. Gates (6.9 ppg), filled in around the seniors.

The Panthers rode their up-tempo game to a 25-win season, a school record. They relied on clutch plays and shots from the foul line down the stretch to defend their district title - this time at home.

Lecanto (25-4) put it all together, caught a break here or there, and reached its goal - the elite eight. It was the toughest game the Panthers had played all season. But they didn't back down. Atlantic went on run after run and knocked the Panthers around on defense. Lecanto simply kept resetting. Giving up wasn't their style all season. Why would they start Saturday?

"We believed, and we fought and we did what we wanted to accomplish," Brantley said. "Like Coach said, '(The loss is) tough right now.' It's the hardest thing I've ever had to face in my life. But nothing can take away from what we accomplished. Nothing can take away our 25 wins or our district title.

"We're still the greatest team at Lecanto."

Kellie Dixon can be reached at kdixon@sptimes.com or (352) 544-9480.

[Last modified February 26, 2007, 23:13:11]


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