Zion Lutheran’s basketball team traveled to Lakeland last year, winning a pair of games at the Sonrise Christian Preseason Classic.
If the Lions (22-7) beat host Miami Westwood Christian Saturday night in the Class 2A regional final, they will make the trip again — this time to the Lakeland Center — for next week’s FHSAA Finals.
Second-year coach John Guion fields a team with just one senior. The others are freshmen and sophomores, a group that has played together since middle school. Guion’s assistant coach, Francis Bornelus, is in charge of that younger team.
“I really believe it’s the success that these kids have had as middle school players here at Zion Lutheran,” Guion said. “They went to Lutheran Nationals in Valparaiso where the freshmen finished second in the nation last year, and they finished 12th in the nation the year before.”
Last season, the Lions — the second seed in District 13-2A — lost in the opening round to Sheridan Hills Christian, prematurely ending a 16-6 year.
They have successfully bounced back by reaching the regional championship game for the first time in program history. This run marks just the fifth postseason appearance and the first since 2001.
“I think that was a great learning moment for us that we can be beaten by anybody,” Guion said. “They had a solid team that outplayed us. They did a great job, and our kids got to experience that burning feeling of a loss. It really set us to do better this year. It was a real motivating factor for us.”
On Tuesday, it came time for his young players to rise to the occasion against Champagnat, last year’s state runner-up with a team comprised mostly of upperclassmen.
Though Zion took an early nine-point lead, Champagnat connected on a three-pointer at the buzzer to pull ahead by 1 at halftime. The Lions fell behind by 7 before freshman Preston Piltoff’s three-pointer started a run.
With 20 seconds remaining, Zion scored the game-tying layup. After a defensive stop, Guion called a timeout. His team found freshman center Keith Stone for a post move and the go-ahead bucket. The Lions shut down Champagnat on the final possession for the 66-64 upset.
“It was exciting at the end when we finally won to make it this far,” said freshman Brandon Bornelus, who averages 16.1 points per game. “Our coach has practiced hard with us and put us through stuff that would prepare us to come out with the victory. He’s prepared me to play in big games, in situations I never thought I’d be in.”
According to Guion, that win holds up as the program’s most historic moment because it represents what he and the players have been building. The postgame euphoria epitomized their progress.
But it doesn’t end there. With a victory on Saturday, the Lions would play either defending champion Orlando Christian Prep or Ocala Vanguard on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re considered the underdogs,” said Stone, who leads the team with 19.7 points per game. “No one thought we would make it this far. We’re making Zion Lutheran history. We’re not done. We’ve got a lot more shocking to do. Every time people hear that we won it’s fun to see the expression on their faces.”