Despite early obstacles, the Eagles exploded in the second half to push past the Scorpions in the 2A semifinals.
CFCA is back.
For the first time since 1997, the Eagles are going back to the state finals following a big 59-44 win over Crossroad Academy on Monday, March 4.
But don’t let the score fool you. This was a tough challenge — one that really reflected the difficulty the Eagles had endured all season.
“We were here last year, and it was always their stated goal to get back here and do more,” said Eagles head coach Jonathan McClintock. “It wasn’t always easy — our schedule was extremely challenging, and there was a lot of adversity — such that we were 5-9 at one point this year.
“We didn’t really get a time to catch our breath, and these guys had to trust that the things we were doing in practice are true and right,” he said. “They kept working and working, and they’re reaping the benefits of that. I’m so proud of them.”
Adversity started early for the Eagles (20-10), when senior forward Jordan Preaster — the team’s leading scorer with 20.3 ppg — found himself in foul trouble out of the gate.
By the time the first quarter was over, Preaster had racked up three fouls and spent most of the first half on the bench. Preaster wasn’t alone in those early foul struggles. Daniel Rivera and Anterrius Washington also were called for quick fouls.
It changed the way that McClintock’s Eagles operated for most of the game.
“We typically like to be a man-to-man group, but we got in some serious foul trouble early,” he said. “We’ve had the 1-2-2 in our back pocket, and it’s gotten us out of some jams this year. The kids played it well.”
“We were here last year, and it was always their stated goal to get back here and do more. It wasn’t always easy — our schedule was extremely challenging, and there was a lot of adversity — such that we were 5-9 at one point this year."
— Jonathan McClintock
Luckily for the Eagles, the Scorpions (21-9) had a lot of difficulty from the floor offensively throughout the first half as CFCA hunkered down defensively. The Eagles only gave up four points in the first quarter.
But much like the Scorpions, the Eagles also got off to a shaky start on offense — only scoring 10 points in the first two quarters to take a 20-17 lead into the break.
In the locker room, McClintock took some time to go over things that needed smoothing out before the second half and took a glass-half-full kind of approach to the early difficulties.
“I was upbeat: Given the adversity that we had faced to be up three was a pretty darn good,” McClintock said. “We talked about winning loose balls — the opportunities that they did get were often second chance, and so we need to do a better job of pursuing the ball. We weren’t bad in the first half. … So the boys stayed poised.”
Between McClintock’s words of wisdom and the reappearance of Preaster, the Eagles began clicking in the third quarter offensively, outscoring the Scorpions 39-27 in the second half.
The senior core of Preaster (10 points, six rebounds), Washington (21 points, six rebounds) and Bryce Street (18 points, four steals) buried shot after shot to sink the Scorpions and push the Eagles through to that elusive state-title appearance.
Last year, McClintock led the Eagles to the state Final Four, but unlike this year, they lost to eventual state champion Miami Christian. So this year’s win was a bit of retribution.
“Like coach told us before the game, ‘Don’t focus on the little stuff that people say that could get into your head — like the bright lights’ and stuff like that, so that’s how we came out,” Preaster said. “We’ve been here before.”
And the nature of this moment is not lost on these three seniors or their teammates.
“It’s a big moment, because I still remember my freshman year like it was yesterday,” Street said. “We have to keep our emotions, remember that it’s just basketball. Play it and enjoy the moment. At the end of the day, we have memories forever, and we have each other.”
Although a win in the state final over North Florida Educational Institute on Tuesday (after press time) would be huge, there’s still a lot to take from this season of ups and downs the Eagles have faced.
For McClintock, it’s all about living in the moment with his guys and enjoying every bit of their tournament run that they possibly can.
“It’s an experience that you don’t get very often,” McClintock said. “It’s good to enjoy the fruit of your labor — if not for 10 hours — before you get onto the next thing. I want the boys to enjoy each other’s company. … They get to play the last game that anybody gets to play — that’s just a blessing.”