LAKELAND -- Norland coach Lawton Williams III probably knows every inch of The Lakeland Center by heart.
Williams has the Vikings back there this week making their fourth appearance at the state final four in the past eight seasons.
When Norland tips off at noon Thursday in a Class 6A semifinal against Gainesville, the dear sight of his mother, Bobbie, sitting next to his father, Lawton Jr., in the stands cheering will be missing.
Bobbie, 70, died June 2 of a heart attack. She and Williams’ father had attended all three of Norland’s previous visits to Lakeland since 2006 and every home game during his 10-plus seasons coaching the Vikings.
“It’s definitely been a mentally taxing season I’ve got to admit,” Williams said. “The kids have been real big for me. They’ve always been there every time they got a sense that I was down and wasn’t myself and have supported me.”
Williams, who has a career record of 225-63 at Norland, always has told his players to appreciate the opportunity of playing in the state tournament whether it’s their first experience or not.
Norland (24-5) hasn’t had a problem taking the message to heart, winning state titles in all three previous visits (2006, 2008, 2012). The Vikings will take on a Gainesville team that is 21-9 and has won five state titles, including a championship in its last state appearance in 2009. The other half of the bracket features Winter Haven (23-9) and Pensacola Pine Forest (29-1).
Williams, who said his father will be in attendance in Lakeland this week, has learned to value the opportunity even more so this season.
“We always tell the kids to seize the moment,” Williams said. “You never know when you may be back. Dan Marino, one of the greatest ever, only got one chance to play in the Super Bowl.”
The Vikings’ season did have its share of rough patches due to injuries, however.
Junior point guard Dalvin Roberts missed six weeks to start the season with a broken bone in his right foot forcing Williams to switch junior guard Zachary Johnson, who transferred before the season from Miramar, to the point guard position.
Norland had a couple of uncharacteristic performances that led to defeats that raised some concern among the team. In early January, the Vikings lost to Class 3A state finalist Coral Springs Christian and later were eliminated by rival Carol City in the GMAC tournament semifinals in a game in which they shot a dismal 3 for 31 in the first half.
Once the team got healthy, Williams was able to make a move that has paid dividends in the playoffs. Williams was able to put Roberts back in his point guard role and moved Johnson to shooting guard. It has opened up the team’s offense.
Norland delivered its two highest scoring games of season in blowout wins over Pembroke Pines Charter (80-49 in the regional semifinals) and Fort Myers (85-59 in the regional final).
Johnson scored 26 against Fort Myers and 29 against Pines Charter, and is averaging a team-best 13 points per game and 4.1 assists. Williams made the switch before the district playoffs and it hasn’t affected Johnson’s ability to distribute the ball. Johnson is averaging five assists per game during those five games.
Defense is still paramount for a Vikings team that has not given up more than 64 points in a game and has allowed 60 or more points only twice.
“Our chemistry wasn’t always there since this was a new team, but eventually we got it,” Johnson said. “Even though I want to be a point guard in college, this was the role my team needed in the playoffs. I’ve been more comfortable and it’s put me in a spot to make plays for my team.”
This season, a Norland squad with no senior starters and only four seniors overall, hasn’t had a problem finding added motivation to continue the team’s tradition. Johnson said he and his teammates dedicated the season to Williams.
“We want to be there for coach the way he always is for us,” Johnson said. “He’s in our lives for more than just basketball and has been a real father-figure to us. When he lost somebody, we felt like we all lost somebody and we want to be there for him.”