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Last year is just a memory now, as Williston prepares to enter into regional competition as the district champion.
The Red Devils suffered a surprising loss to Newberry in the district semifinals last year. Newberry went on to lose to Interlachen in the first game of the regionals.
At the same time, David Vespignani was finishing a stint as the junior varsity coach at Cape Coral down in Lee County, just west of Fort Myers. Eventually a coaching vacancy occurred up here, he applied and was hired.
He then got a look at the landscape for this year, which included four seniors without too much experience, no juniors, and the rest a bunch of untested freshmen and sophomores, including five first-year players just out of middle school.
"If you had told me that we'd be in the (district) finals, I would have been more than happy."
Now, after the team raised the trophy at the championship last Saturday, the goals are much loftier.
This year, Williston's first opponent, coming in tonight (Thursday), is Interlachen. That's the same Rams team that won the district last year, then beat Newberry, and last week upset top seed Crescent City, although the Raiders were missing their best player. Obviously the Putnam County team has earned its way into this game.
A win here would likely give the Devils another home game next Tuesday against either Union County or, once again, the same P.K. Yonge team they beat Saturday night. The FHSAA changed the brackets a few years ago, ostensibly to cut down on travel, so that the teams from the same district, if they win, play in the regional semifinals. In prior years, two teams from the same district could not meet until the regional final.
District titles have been hard to come by for the Red Devil boys. Prior to Saturday, the last time Williston lofted a district trophy was 1995. The coach was Bob Marinak, and the similarity in the districts was amazing. The boys that year beat Newberry, 61-56, in the semifinals and won the championship, 54-53, over P.K. Yonge in overtime.
They then lost in the regionals, also in overtime. That's something they hope to change.
Some of the players' names we've been able to track down from that 1995 team were seniors Levett Crawford, Tony Bailey, Dewayne Brown and Ricky Turner. Other team members were Matt Stevens, Jermaine Harris, Navarous Pullings, Matt Brooks and Adam Alverson.
Prior to 1995, the last district title was in 1978. The Devils made the playoffs as a runner-up in 2006, beat Union County in overtime in the first game, then lost to Orlando Jones by one point. In 2005 Williston was runner-up in the district, then lost to Dade City Pasco in the first round.
Then you go back to the year 2000, when the Devils were runners-up again, this time losing to Wildwood in the first round of the regionals.
In 1999 the Devils lost early in the districts, but in 1998 were runners-up, again losing to Wildwood in the regionals.
We couldn't find any records of 1997 or 1996.
But that was then, and this is now. Vespignani has molded together a unit that believes in him and believes in itself. "We've gotten better," he says. "The players bought into everything."
Talk to the two seniors from the starting lineup, Devin Timmons and C.J. James, and you realize it wasn't easy. "We practiced hard," said Timmons, while James echoed the sentiment, "Hard work," as the reasons for success.
Defense and balance are the two things that stand out on this club. The high scorer is usually someone different each game. Assists are plentiful. There are many steals and forced turnovers.
If you take a look at the game stories from last week, you'll see how balanced the scoring was.
The team has a record of 20-7 going into this game. The announced record at recent games has eight losses, but we can only find seven, including three to Trinity Catholic (which was knocked out of the tourney last week), and one each to P.K. Yonge, Santa Fe, Wesley Chapel and Newberry.
One of the goals Vespignani cited a couple of weeks ago was to go undefeated at home. "We came up one point short," he noted, referring to a 39-38 loss to Trinity Catholic in a game which featured great defense by both sides.
There's an old saying that "Offense wins games, but defense wins championships." The Devils have been practicing all season for these championships by emphasizing defense. Now it's time to put it to work.
Jim Clark is the editor of the Williston Pioneer Sun News. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 528-3343.