Florida High School Athletic Association: The Road to Lakeland by Merlisa Lawrence Corbett

Florida High School Athletic Association: The Road to Lakeland
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett

The Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Daytona 500, are among the biggest sporting events on the planet and Florida has hosted to them all.

Those events attract national and even international attention. Meanwhile, there is one event that takes place each year, right here in Polk County that is as exciting as the NBA Finals, as thrilling as the Daytona 500, and is often far more competitive than most Super Bowls.

It’s the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Boys Basketball Championships. Florida’s version of the NCAA Final Four, the FHSAA basketball tournament takes place annually around late February at the Lakeland Center.

The Lakeland Center, formerly the Lakeland Civic Center, first began hosting the tournament in 1977. Except for a few years in the early 1990s, Lakeland has been the host for nearly 30 years.

“The Lakeland Center is committed to making the FHSAA Basketball Finals a great experience for the schools involved along with the spectators,” says Corey Sobers, a spokesperson for the FHSAA. “The state tournament has also been held at the Lakeland Center for a considerable number of years now, so there is a tradition established at the venue that can’t be matched anywhere else in Florida for basketball.”

Indeed, the Lakeland Center is as steeped in Florida high school basketball tradition as the legendary coaches and players who have graced its arena.

Contests are held based on school size and classification. Although Lakeland began hosting the girls’ championships in 1989, the boys’ tournament draws the biggest crowds and the most attention.

Thousands, including fans, media and college recruiters, flock to Lakeland for action-packed games held all day.

What makes the tournament so special is that it’s a true state title, open to teams from the Keys to the Panhandle. Teams fight through district and regional playoffs for a chance to travel to Lakeland for this rowdy and raucous ritual.

For one weekend the Lakeland Center provides the stage where sports drama unfolds. Last season fans got to witness David slain by Goliath in the 8A championship. The mighty South Miami Cobras entered the tournament on a role but got shot down by (Oviedo) Hagerty, whose players sank eight three-pointers.

Nothing excites the crowd as much as when local teams make the final four. Last season the Winter Haven Blue Devils lost a heartbreaker, 59-52, in the 6A semifinals to Pine Forest of Pensacola. Bartow lost in the 7A semifinals to Blanche Ely (Pompano Beach), 71-52.

In 1979 the Lakeland Dreadnaughts reached the finals in 1979 only to lose to Stuart (Martin County) 75-71. In 1990, the Kathleen Red Devils (27-8) took on the powerful (Jacksonville) Ribault Trojans (31-1) in the 3A championships. Ribault edged Bartow 68-65.

One of the most memorable runs by a local team came in 1988 when the Bartow Yellow Jackets won it all. Bartow began the season as defending district champions. They ended it by defeating Pompano Beach Ely, 63-54, in the Class 3A state championship game. They were an amazing 34-1 that year. Several players from that team went on to play college ball, including Alvin Pearsall Jr., now the head basketball coach at Tenoroc.

When it became clear that the Yellow Jackets had secured the victory, Bartow fans began to chant a mantra that has become a traditional send off at local basketball games.  Similar to the “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye” heard in arenas all over the country, Bartow fans chanted “Take your hat, your coat and leave,” as they pointed to the exits.

Lakeland’s three-decade run as the epicenter of high school basketball has not gone unchallenged. Other cities vied to host the tournament.

In 1985 the FHSAA voted to keep the tournament in Lakeland. Daytona Beach, which had begun construction on the Ocean Center Auditorium, bid to host the event. But the FHSAA reportedly had concerns that the barrage of spring breakers would make it difficult for basketball fans to find hotel rooms.

The FHSAA opened up the tournament for bids in 2010. The three finalists were Lakeland, Kissimmee and Orlando. According to a story reported in the Lakeland Ledger, Lakeland won the bid thanks to a collaborative effort from civic groups throughout Polk County.

It also helped when local officials added elements to the event, like coaching clinics, to enhance the experience for fans and participants.

This year’s tournament takes place Feb. 25 through March 1. Lakeland has become so synonymous with Florida’s high school basketball scene that many media outlets dub the entire season “The Road to Lakeland.”