Sports Editor

OHS BBB Armani Thomas

Osceola's Armani Thomas, owner of two state championship rings, is the Kowboys' lone returning starter.

If this was the end of an era, the ending came right from a script.

Osceola’s boys basketball team took the court last Saturday night against Wellington with ten seniors. Nine eventually got into the game.

But for the last two weeks of the Class 9A playoffs, from the regional semifinal on, these experienced Kowboys played as an underdog.

Says who?

MaxPreps, that’s who.

From a road game at Vero Beach, to hosting nemesis Oak Ridge, to going to the state tournament, this veteran, cohesive bunch was ranked lower than its opponents by the website that generates computerized rankings for every team in the state.

If being ranked higher gave those opponents comfort … how’d that work out for ya’? Wanna play best-of-3?

I ask those Indians, Pioneers, Cobras and Wolverines, like once-busted Mike McDermott told Teddy KGB in Rounders, after winning back his poker stake and playing with house money: You feelin' satisfied now? 'Cause I can go on bustin' you up all night.

Here’s a look at MaxPreps’ Class 9A ratings after the state tournament — you know, that thing the Kowboys won two games in by a combined 19 points: 1. South Miami; 2. Oak Ridge; 3. Osceola; 6. Vero Beach; 7. Wellington.

So on the road to the state championship, your Kowboys defeated the No. 1, 2, 6 and 7 teams. Over a 12-day stretch.

Other teams’ credentials haven’t impressed these Kowboys, many the same guys who helped win the 2017 state title. They haven’t been fazed by falling behind in big games, like when they trailed Oak Ridge at home (22-17) in the regional final— a matchup regarded by many the last three years as the true state championship game (the winner has won the Class 9A title) — and Wellington (30-23) in Saturday’s championship.

What’s the secret? They lean on each other. When talent meets trust, that’s a dangerous thing for opponents, especially facing a fully-motivated Kowboys team playing with a proverbial sixth man.

When the path was blocked and the door was locked, these Kowboys just came in a window. Through the roof was an option, too.

“They’ve been in that spot many, many times,” Coach Nate Alexander said.

This group has stuck together — even when they didn’t. When Florida-committed center Omar Payne transferred to Montverde Academy last summer to play a bigger-stage schedule, the coaches resolved to find a game plan to that emphasized speed over size. With Payne watching from the stands in all those big wins, it worked.

There were speed bumps along the way. They were 4-5 after the Fort Myers City of Palms holiday tournament, and 11-6 after an inexplicable district loss at George Jenkins on Jan. 16 — not the look of a state contender.

Folding was not an option. Winning 22 of their last 24 games was. They added bulldozing center Diwun Black after winter break when his academic issues were straightened out, and he fit right into the machine almost perfectly as the Kowboys steamed to win after win, especially once the stakes got higher and higher as the opposition got tougher and tougher. Both Oak Ridge and South Miami were ranked No. 1 at the time the Osceola machine ran them over.

“The only game where everybody didn’t have us as the underdog in the playoffs was probably Wellington,” Alexander said.

And how’d that work out for ‘em?

The Osceola gym is filled with reminders of past teams that rose above and created one heck of a legacy. The 1983 Kowboys went 37-0 thanks to legends like Jimmy McCrimon and Frank Ford, who got to see the 2017 team but past away shortly before Christmas. But their class didn’t need multiple jewelry boxes.

No one player on this team, and the two before it, are legends on their own. But seniors Josh Marte, Isaiah and Jeremiah Palermo, Quest McCrimon, DeShawn Jones, Malique Roberson, Tyvion Woodard, Matthew Kingston, Jaduhkiss Soto, then this winter, Black, formed a team that eventually could not — and would not — be beaten.

“It ended the way we wanted it to end,” said Marte, who’s been accepted to nearby Bethune-Cookman University, after Saturday’s title game. “It’s a dream come true before we go our separate ways to our separate colleges … hopefully I get ‘Zay’ (Palermo) to come to Bethune with me and keep this going for a freshman year … but we always stuck together as one.”

Whenever I saw Jeremiah Palermo this season, my greeting was, “Hey, Bionic Man!” He injured his knee pretty badly in last year’s Oak Ridge playoff game — then came back ready for the season eight months later and became a starter.

And I’d be remiss without giving a shout-out to Alexander’s coaching staff: assistants Bryan Morrison, Steve Perez, Ron Lafond, Derrel Roberson and Demetrius LaFontant.

The banners on the OHS gym walls probably won’t do justice to how good the team has been, a team Alexander now has to re-stock.

“There’s no words I can think of that express what they’ve meant to this program,” the coach said. “We talk about legacy every year as part of what we tell our younger guys. They know. It’s not easy hanging one banner. They’ve hung two, and won 98 games with a tough schedule. The ones that were with me all four years, they’re like my kids now.” …

… Go to the state tournament enough and rack up credential lanyards, and you start seeing the same people each year. I talked to those guys Saturday after the medals were handed out, the scoreboard went dark and teams boarded their buses home.

We had the same conclusion: if another player had a more dominant state tournament performance than Diwun Black’s, then we’re not old enough to have seen it. (And my hair is greying now.)

Austin Lyon called the game on Spectrum Sports’ digital feed and said Black made their in-game graphics look silly.

“Black 35; three others with 3,” Lyon said the post-game scoring summary read. “Rest of the team 5-for-32 shooting. It’s not supposed to read like that when a team wins.”

Osceola’s offense isn’t built on a one-man show; four guys scored in double digits in Friday’s semifinal win over rough-and-tumble South Miami.

“On defense we were pushing the pressure, on offense we just jumped on Black’s back,” Coach Nate Alexander said. “It’s pretty big.”

Steve Mason’s seen a lot. An OHS lifer, he watched the ’83 team play as a boy. Later he coached the Kowboys for short stretches between 2000-11.

“Wellington’s got great athletes, well-coached, and gave us problems,” he said of Saturday’s game. “Our only answer was Diwun. It is the greatest one-person performance I have seen in OHS history. Ever.

“Frank had Jimmy. Vince Carter had T.T. Toliver (at Mainland). Austin Rivers had a range of shooters at Winter Park who knocked down 3s. (Diwun) is the single-greatest individual performance of putting the team on his back. We ‘old heads’ will be talking about him and that game 20 years from now. I’m still shaking my head.”

Me too, Steve …

… So we’ve discussed the seniors on this team, but a few guys will return. Junior forward Armani Thomas is already a two-year starter and will carry the bulk of the experience next season — at Wednesday’s “Walk of Champions” where the basketball team and wrestling state tournament medal-winners were honored, he seemed ready for that. Backup point guard Josh Blazquez was Marte’s understudy and, as a sophomore, has already showed Marte-like energy and fire.

Junior Edwin Colon and freshmen Christian Combs and Manuel Centeno also suited up this weekend.

What’s it mean? We’ll see how good a coach Alexander is next year when Osceola won’t have that edge just from him writing “Marte, Palermo, Soto, Black, Thomas” as the starting lineup. They’ll still have talent. They’ll still be a factor to win a seventh consecutive district title. It’ll just happen differently.

Until then, Alexander, whose wife and months-old little girl finally get their husband and Daddy back for a while, gets the last word:

“I need to thank the players, who make it all happen, but also the coaches, community and my family for constantly supporting us all the way.”