It was the week before Christmas 2014, but there was no joy for the Miami Christian Victors boys’ basketball team.
The despair started with Marcos Molina, who led Hialeah Gardens to a 2012 Class 8A state title. He took the Miami Christian job this past April, but, in November, he made what he called an “incredibly difficult” decision by resigning as coach.
Had he stayed on, he said, three new Miami Christian players he had coached previously would have been ruled ineligible by the FHSAA. Following your coach to another school can be viewed as a recruiting violation.
“I would rather those kids play than me coach,” Molina said of his decision to step aside.
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After Molina, Sal Stewart coached the team for a while, but he resigned on Dec. 18, leaving the Victors players in limbo.
“We thought everything was over at that point,” Victors senior guard Anthony Fernandez said. “We were lost and alone.”
It took a week, but the Victors finally got a new coach in Andrew Moran, 32, who said he had turned down the job previously, before it was offered to Stewart.
Moran, a former Miami High assistant under then-coach Marcos Carreno, had stepped away from the game when he and his wife, Angela, had their first child, a daughter named Kylani, who is now two years old.
When the job came open again, Moran said he had to convince his wife that this was the right thing to do, and now his wife not only attends every game, she films them, too.
Basketball, after all, is a family affair. Angela played the sport at Lourdes, where her sister, Veronica Minervino, now competes. And Moran’s brother, Nate, is an assistant coach for Orlando Edgewater, which has made it to state in Class 6A.
Fernandez and teammate Joe Allen said they are grateful Moran took the job.
“He basically saved us,” Fernandez said of Moran. “We had a connection with him.”
That connection, however, was not immediate.
Moran had to bench two players and boot one off the team to get their attention. The player he kicked off the team eventually was allowed to return, but the message had been sent.
“We had a lot of attitude problems and egos,” Allen said. “Everyone came from different schools, so we needed to jell. We all wanted to get to state, but we thought we could get there by playing one on one.”
Even after wins, Moran said, some kids complained about playing time. But Moran preached teamwork, and that message finally got through on Jan. 24, which was the night the Victors defeated Norland 63-57.
If they could share the ball and defeat Norland — which this week will go for its fourth consecutive state title in Class 6A — they could beat anybody, the Victors figured.
That realization helps explain why the Victors (23-4) will play in a Class 2A state semifinal on Tuesday at 4 p.m. against Sarasota Christian (20-8), which is led by Blake Morrow, a 6-3 junior point guard. Morrow had 48 points in a regional semifinal.
This is Miami Christian’s first trip to state in 13 years, and it may not happen again for a while because most of the team’s best players are seniors.
But for now, especially given what they have been through this season, these players are excited about playing in Lakeland.
“If we play together,” Fernandez said, “no one can stop us.”
Boys’ state basketball
When: Tuesday through Saturday.
Where: The Lakeland Center, 701 W. Lime St., Lakeland.
Admission: $10 per session; Parking: $8.
Defending state champions — Class 8A: Winter Park; 7A: Oviedo; 6A: Miami Norland; 5A: Plantation American Heritage; 4A: Orlando Lake Highland Prep; 3A: Weston Sagemont; 2A: Orlando Christian Prep; 1A: Malone.
Tuesday’s schedule — Class 1A semifinals: Chipley vs. Malone, 10 a.m.; Hawthorne vs. Crescent City, 11:30 a.m.; Class 2A semifinals: Land O’Lakes Academy at the Lakes vs. Orlando Agape, 2:30; Miami Christian vs. Sarasota Christian, 4; Class 3A semifinals: Orlando First Academy vs. Jacksonville Providence, 7; Sagemont vs. Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, 8:30.
— Class 4A semifinals: West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman vs. Fort Myers Dunbar, 9:30 a.m.; Tallahassee Godby vs. Melbourne Holy Trinity, 11 a.m.; Class 1A final: 5:05; Class 2A final: 8:35.
Thursday’s schedule — Class 3A final: 9:30 a.m.; Class 4A final: 1:05; Class 8A semifinals: Oviedo Hagerty vs. St. Petersburg, 7; Hollywood McArthur vs. Wellington, 8:30.
Friday’s schedule — Class 5A semifinals: Tallahassee Rickards vs. Tarpon Springs, 10 a.m.; Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons vs. St. Petersburg Gibbs, 11:30 a.m.; Class 6A semifinals: Gainesville vs. Orlando Edgewater, 2:30; Miami Norland vs. Tampa Jefferson, 4; Class 7A semifinals: Blanche Ely vs. North Port, 7; Kissimmee Osceola vs. Oviedo, 8:30.
Saturday’s schedule — Class 5A final: 10:05 a.m.; Class 6A final: 1:35; Class 7A final: 5:05; Class 8A final: 8:35.