SEBRING - Simply qualifying for the state playoffs is a respectable way to end the hoops season. But for Avon Park and Sebring, the journey has just begun.
The Red Devils (19-7), champions of Class 4A-District 9, host Tampa's Berkeley Prep (25-3) tonight in the boys basketball Class 4A-Region 3 semifinal at 7 p.m. Meanwhile, Sebring (19-6) which captured the Class 5A-District 11 crown, hosts Mariner (Cape Coral) tonight, also at 7.
The Blue Streaks edged Lemon Bay for the district crown by a score of 69-62 to capture their first district title since 2009.
"The guys were really a little nervous before the game against Lemon Bay," Harris said. "After coming out a little scared, and getting down by 10, we came back to take the lead and played really well down the stretch. I'm proud of the way the way they battled."
"We really showed some resolve," Harris added. "I was really impressed with how we handled the adversity."
In the regional quarterfinals, the Streaks trounced Cape Coral with their suffocating press.
"Our press forced the tempo to where we like it and allowed us to take advantage of our athleticism," Harris said.
The win also snapped a three-game losing streak in the state playoffs.
"The fourth time was the charm," Harris said. "It's nice to finally get a win in the quarterfinals and move on to the regional semifinals."
Tonight against Mariner (20-8), the Streaks will be looking to shut down Rodney Hunter. The 6-foot-5 swingman has been vital to the Tritons' success this season, and limiting his touches will be key, Harris said.
"He's their engine. If we can control him and keep pressure on him, we have a really good shot of controlling the game.
Harris also said that he thinks the Streaks' physicality gives them a major advantage.
"We've got some big bodies in the post, and they're always looking to bang. The inside presence we have could really disrupt Mariner's offensive game plan."
Under second-year coach Marty O'Hora, Avon Park is looking to make another deep playoff run. In 2010, the Devils reached the state semifinals before bowing out. Coincidentally, the first two teams they played that year were Tampa Catholic and Berkeley Prep.
"Any team with more than 20 wins has probly won a lot of different types of games," O'Hora said. "But height wise, we match up fairly well with them. But we know that if we play smart and focus, we can hang with anybody."
O'Hora added that he hopes the Avon Park faithful turnout again like they did for the Tampa Catholic game.
"It's a great environment when they really get loud," he said. "And it's great for the kids, who really deserve the attention."
The Devils defeated Frostproof in the district championship game to claim their second straight district title. From there, Avon park stunned Tampa Catholic in overtime, 74-70, in the regional quarterfinals to stave off elimination. The Devils overcame a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to edge the Crusaders.
"We just really picked it up in the second half," O'Hora said. "We were passive in the first half, but really got aggressive on the glass late in the game. We were also driving to the paint more and it paid off."
The victory over Tampa Catholic avenged last year's 75-38 dismantling in the regional quarterfinals.
"They had pretty much the same team, and we brought back pretty much the same team," O'Hora said. "So it was a pretty big deal to beat these guys."
For complete coverage of both games, be sure to check Thursday's Highlands Today sports section. Live updates from the game can be found at the Highlands Today Facebook page.