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The Foundation of Winter Haven Basketball

February 12, 2017
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It’s good from time to time to stop and take a look back. I did that recently, and it struck me that something big happened 20 years ago during the 1996-97 season, although we didn’t realize it at the time.

No, it wasn’t that Lakeland Christian won the first of back-to-back state titles in boys fall soccer. Nor was it that Kathleen and Bartow won state titles in boys basketball and softball, respectively, although all were big achievements.

Twenty years ago was LeDawn Gibson’s first year as head coach of the Winter Haven girls basketball team after taking over for Billy Hardee. At the time, Winter Haven was a solid program. In fact, in 1996, Winter Haven had an exciting team led by Charysee McGee and Kim Douglas that reached the regional semifinals and might have reached the state tournament had Douglas not been hobbled by a knee injury in the postseason.

It was a senior-heavy team. So when Gibson took over the following year, it was a rebuilding job. It became an even bigger job when the player expected to start at point guard decided to work and not to play basketball.

The first year was nothing special. The Blue Devils were about a .500 team and didn’t make it out of districts. It was the last time Winter Haven didn’t make the playoffs.

Of course, no one would have predicted the powerhouse that Gibson built during her 12 years as head coach — the one that Johnnie Lawson has continued. There was one thing, however, that was evident — a strong work ethic that has continued throughout the years.

If anyone on that team epitomized the attributes shared by Gibson’s and Lawson’s players, regardless of skill level, it was 5-foot-9 post player Jill Davis. She wasn’t the most athletic player, but I doubt anyone worked harder, and that made her a top post player.

The growth in the skill level of players in the ensuing years could be seen by the changing role of guard Dana Ford. She was thrust into the starting job at point guard as a freshman when the other player quit. In the ensuing years, as more-skilled players joined, she became the second then third option at point guard, but she always started at guard or wing. She always had a role because of her work ethic and smarts.

Players like Davis and Ford were overachievers, and that is another common theme of players in the program.

I bring this up because every year there are new coaches in all sports. You never know what coach will develop that powerhouse. Certainly, talent is needed, but the foundation is the same — hard work and discipline. That must be the constant to sustain success.

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