The Leto boys basketball team trailed Chamberlain by four points with fewer than seven minutes remaining in the district game. Second-year coach Mike Heben felt good about the Falcons’ chances, and he called a timeout to regroup.
The players, drenched in sweat and chests heaving, surrounded Heben in a huddle. The game was still in reach, but their faces said otherwise.
“You don’t look ready. Are you ready?” Heben asked. “Have confidence.”
For Leto, a team trying desperately to become relevant after years in the shadows, that’s often easier said than done.
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The worn, creaky bleachers that flank Leto’s parqueted gymnasium floor look as if they have a story to tell. If they did, there wouldn’t be much to it.
The Leto boys basketball team hasn’t had a winning season since 2006-07, and the Falcons have just two district titles to speak of in the school’s 50-year history. The last came in 1997, before many of the current Falcons were even born.
Heben is trying to change all that.
A 1996 graduate of Benedictine Catholic High School in Cleveland, Ohio, Heben was a guard at Division III Lake Erie College. After one basketball season, however, injuries put an end to his playing career and he turned to coaching.
Heben coached AAU basketball in Cleveland for a decade and was an assistant for the Benedictine varsity team six years. During the time Heben coached his alma mater, the Bengals were perennial district champions, and they went to the state championship game twice.
Looking for a change of scenery, Heben arrived in Tampa in the summer of 2013. His plan was to teach for a year, get used to his surroundings, then look for a coaching job.
Then the Leto job found him.
Athletic director Marikos Asgedom — an alumnus of Leto longing to see its athletic programs get back to the shape they were once in — is glad it did.
“What you’re seeing from Heben is productivity,” Asgedom said. “We’re not blessed with a whole lot of talent, so it’s a whole lot of hard work. …It’s a step forward where he’s building a foundation.”
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Leto is a different world than what Heben had known.
As an assistant at Benedictine, he coached players who grew up going to basketball camps and playing on club or AAU teams. By the time those players got to high school, the knowledge of the game was already there.
At Leto, a Title-I school, the path to high school basketball is often a little different.
Coaching a team with more first-year players than not, Heben had to simplify his playbook, cutting it from 40 plays to 10. He had to implement a discipline the Falcons hadn’t quite been used to, and in the process, he lost nine players during his first season.
But the ones who stayed caught on.
Leto finished the 2013-14 season 5-19, winning more than four games for the first time in eight years. The Falcons took two months off after last season ended, but on May 1, it was back to work. Bright and early all summer, five days a week, they met for workouts at the Leto gym.
They were the hardest practices junior guard David Jones, who averages 24 points and nine rebounds to lead the team, had ever done in his life. But Heben believed in them. Slowly but surely, the Falcons began believing in themselves.
“The drive to get better, to make us better, and the effort he and the other coaches put in, you can’t take it for granted. A lot of people don’t get that, coaches that are fully committed like that,” Jones said. “It makes me want to play for him, the effort he puts in for us.”
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After the fourth-quarter timeout against Chamberlain, things went downhill for Leto.
Jones, who finished the game with 10 points, fouled out with just more than four minutes left to play. The Falcons still mustered a few baskets, but looked lost without their best player on the court, and the Chiefs shot well from the free-throw line down the stretch to win 57-50.
Heben doesn’t believe in moral victories. Even for a team in the process of rebuilding, losses aren’t acceptable. Still, he knows tough losses and recognizing milestones — like the Falcons did on Dec. 2 after a 62-52 home win against King, their benchmark sixth of the season — is all part of the process.
“We clapped it up in the locker room, then we moved on,” Heben said. “We didn’t want them to settle for that. That’s not our end goal.”
Before the season began, Leto (11-11) hoped to finish with a winning record. With three regular-season games left to play, then the district tournament, the goal is still within reach.
Helping the Falcons get there will be starting guard Joe Bergollo, an infielder on the Leto baseball team who was recruited by Heben to join his squad. Before this season, the 6-foot-2 senior had never been on a basketball team in his life.
Bergollo said he has enjoyed learning the new sport, and the fact that the team already feels like family. But one thing about this season — his favorite thing — sticks out among the rest.
“Winning,” he said, grinning widely.
Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected] Follow @_kellyparsons.