What a run for Lady Longhorns
One of the most successful basketball eras in county history came to an end Saturday when Harmony played for the Class 7A girls basketball state championship at the Lakeland Center.
Wekiva won, 59-48, over a Lady Longhorns squad filled with steely, hard-nosed battlers.
Senior starters Julia Ingler, Rebekah Fitzpatrick, Regan Dotson and Stephanie Baur played for the last time Saturday and they left a legacy that will be difficult to match.
Over the past three seasons, Harmony won 72 games and lost 13.
It won three district championships and made three straight trips to the regional finals. This year Harmony broke through powerhouse Haines City’s yoke to reach the state tournament, and once there it proved to be the equal of the competition by dispatching Sarasota, 47-36, in the semifinal round.
The fascinating thing about the Lady Longhorns during their reign is that seldom did they seem like the superior team during the pregame warm-ups at postseason events.
Look at the Harmony players running through their drills and you’re thinking, “nice team.”
Not “awesome team,” or “dominating team.”
But, dominate is what they usually did for two reasons.
One, the players are gym rats. They played basketball because they love it. They played basketball with a passion bordering on fanaticism, and they played with a “beat us if you can” camaraderie that put them 20 points up on most teams before the opening tipoff.
They are “Hoosiers” in burnt orange uniforms.
Reason two for their success is the coaching staff, led by Coach Paul Strauch and assistant Drew Strauch, his brother.
There wasn’t a more prepared basketball team in the state. The Lady Longhorns, who finished 27-4, obviously didn’t win them all, but they could have. They never looked like an inferior team.
Paul Strauch emphasizes man-to-man defense and a methodical offense that sees the team normally make a half a dozen passes before taking a shot. Drew Strauch put together game plans that gave Harmony an edge.
The Strauchs coach smart, their players play smart, and that’s a tough combination to beat.
Paul Strauch succinctly described the feeling that he and the team felt after Saturday’s loss: “Losing stinks.”
It’s not as much fun as winning, for sure, but study this setback and you understand what it is that propelled Harmony to such success.
Wekiva was a little longer and lot quicker. The Mustangs could have won by 30 points if they could have gotten their run-and-gun offense going, but they couldn’t.
The Longhorns successfully turned the state championship contest to their strength, a half-court game.
More important, even though Harmony didn’t play as well as it would have wished, shooting just 28 percent from the field and being forced into taking 33 3-point shots because of Wekiva’s 2-3 zone, the team just wouldn’t go away.
They weren’t getting many breaks. Ingler, their top 3-point shooter, sat on the bench most of the second period in foul trouble.
Just before the first half ended, the Mustangs had a chance to go up by 11 points. Instead, the Longhorns made a defensive stop and Regan Dotson roamed coast-to-coast for a layup as time expired to cut the Mustangs lead to 23-16. The Horns were firmly in it.
The Mustangs jumped to a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter and it looked over, except Ingler kept hitting 3-pointers, Baur contributed a huge 3-point shot, and Fitzpatrick drove through the tall timber to manufacture a pair of three-point plays that drew Harmony within four points.
Wekiva won because it hit almost all of its free throws in the last three minutes, after missing almost all of its free throws over the first three quarters.
Some questionable traveling calls by the officials in the fourth quarter thwarted Harmony’s momentum, but the team wouldn’t use that as an excuse.
As it won with class, it accepted defeat the same way.
Rebuilding is an understatement for what awaits Harmony next season. Ingler is off to Rollins College and the other senior starters should garner college invitations.
There is promise in players like Abby Fitzpatrick, the fifth starter who knocked down a pair of free throws in the fourth quarter, Rachel Seevers and Lily Loutfi, and Paul Strauch likes the underclassmen in his program and has every intention of making trips to the state tournament common occurrences.
In the final analysis, Harmony’s seniors probably accomplished 99 percent of what they set out to do as freshmen.
Let’s say that although the Longhorns did not leave the floor Saturday as state champions, they certainly walked off that Lakeland Center basketball court as winners.