On Tuesday morning, the Malone Tigers had a quick shoot around before loading up the bus to make the trip down south to Lakeland for this week's Class 1A State Boys Basketball tournament. The Tigers head into Wednesday's Semifinals 25-4 on the year, and they're young, with just two seniors on the roster.
Head coach Steven Welch admitting this young team has surprised him, but after falling in the Regional Finals the last two seasons, he's happy to finally see the guys have success.
"Some of these veteran guys with Chai and Antwain just to see that emotion to finally break through after having their heartbroken two years in a row and being so close and they're a confident bunch and just to see this team grow," he said. "This summer I didn't know if we'd win ten games this year. We were so young and the talent level was so much different then what we had last year and they have worked really hard. They've developed some confidence throughout that hard work."
Malone heads into Lakeland a program rich with tradition, as there's only one other team in the state of Florida with a better hoops reputation then Malone- Miami High has a state record 18 titles.
The Tigers have a whopping 13 State Championships to their name, at least one every decade dating back to 1952. The Tigers won six in the 1990's, including five straight from 1994-1998. The last time they won was back in '98, but they look to change that this week, as they look to win the Class 1A title.
Coach Welch was a part of the 1991 State Championship team, and also on the squad? Current players Chai Baker and Antwain Johnson's dads. Johnson actually has two uncles and two cousins with rings, and the team agreeing, it's about time to hang a banner of their own in the gym.
"I work hard everyday and it'd be great to bring one back," said Chai. "I'm trying to follow in my father's footsteps, my coaches footsteps. They know the feeling and they know how it feels to be down there. They know how it feels to be down there and they know how to play. It'd be really great to bring one back. I'm going to fight hard to bring one back."
"Everybody in my family has a ring," said Antwain. "In Chai's family, coach, and I'd just feel like a part of something special. It feels like I'm supposed to have a ring."
To get to Thursday's State Championship game, Malone has to get by Chiefland first, a team that's 26-1 on the year, and like Malone, very guard oriented.