The Clewiston High School boys varsity basketball team is standing on the precipice of a district title. With three wins and two losses in Florida’s 4A District 12, the team stands at number two in the four-team league.
The Tigers have four games left before the District 12 playoff game on Feb. 3. The next conference game will be against Pahokee High School on Friday, Jan. 23. The Tiger’s head coach says the team needs to win against Pahokee in order to stay in the competition; if the team wins, he said, it will most likely go head to head against Glades Central to compete for a shot in the playoff game.
The team, with an 11-9 record this season, is being led by long-time head coach Willie Lee, who is back for his second year after taking one year off during the 2012/13 season. Coach Lee has had blue and gold blood coursing through his veins his entire life. Born and raised in Clewiston, Coach Lee played basketball in the Tiger’s Den from 1976 to 1980, and returned after his stint at university to teach and ultimately coach at Clewiston High beginning in 1985.
Coach Lee’s 29-year career has been marked by ups and down, and though he admits to feeling “burn out” after his nearly three decades as head coach, he says it has all been worth it.
“I love basketball. It has its highs and lows, but I enjoy every moment of it. It’s been my life,” said Coach Lee before last Friday’s non-conference game against LaBelle High School, which the varsity boys lost by three points.
Coach Lee has seen many great players walk onto his court and has led many teams to district championships and even state championships. He works with middle school players to help groom them before they enter high school, and many of his players have had fathers and uncles who played under his direction throughout the years.
Coach Lee admits that his successes are due in part to great players and the help of assistant coaches, one of whom has been working with Coach Lee for many years.
Coach Lee submitted his resignation letter at beginning of the school year, finalizing his retirement after the end of this season, despite being wooed back after his tentative retirement in 2012.
“I was burnt out,” said Coach Lee, of taking the 2012/13 season off. “One year off helped a lot. I still have enthusiasm and energy, but the demand for coaching now — you’re never out of season. I don’t take time off, and I need to.”
Preseason and cross-training meet with the regular season and playoffs to make an athlete’s schedule full to the brim nearly year-round. And where there’s an athlete, there’s a coach.
Despite the grueling schedule, Coach Lee says the offseason is an important indicator of a team’s performance during the regular season.
“You win in the offseason,” he said. “Preseason is important. If we have a great summer camp, I believe we’ll have a good team. We worked hard last summer and it paid off.”
Coach Lee’s varsity team is certainly working hard to make a name for themselves coming into the district playoffs next month. The Tigers narrowly won against rival Glades Central last Thursday night, winning at the buzzer 46-44 against the Belle Glade team.
“It could have gone either way,” said Coach Lee, who remarked they lost to Okeechobee High School at the buzzer just a week before that. “It was a great game to be a part of. The game was delayed for about an hour, but it was a great victory. It was well worth the wait.”
The boys took on Glades Central again last night in an away conference game but didn’t walk away with the win, losing 34-56.
As a team, Coach Lee says the boys are very aggressive and up-tempo.
“They’re aggressive on both sides. Our defense is our number offense. Without a good defense, you can’t win games,” he said.
The 12-man varsity team is made up of more than half seniors, a few juniors, sophomores and one freshman. Some of the players stand out amongst the rest, including six-foot-five senior forward Sherard Hope. Coach Lee also pointed out No. 20, Trevor Pruitt, who he called a jack of all trades and a master of none.
“I feel very comfortable when he [Pruitt] is on the floor. He does every thing you need him to do,” said Coach Lee.
But Coach Lee does not depend on any one player to win the game, instead he rotates a blue unit and a gold unit to keep the players fresh. “I want a fresh five in, then I’ll put another fresh five in.”
Coach Lee said he likes to get all the players on the court in the first half to see how well they’re playing that game. In the second half, and especially the final quarter, he puts in the best-performing players.
But as Coach Lee’s last season nears its end, the fate of the Clewiston boys varsity basketball team is up in the air. According to Coach Lee, his assistant coach said he isn’t interested in taking over as head honcho.
“People don’t understand the demands of being a head coach. It’s a whole other monster. … You’re delegating. If it doesn’t go right, it’s on you. … If you’re not headstrong and mentally tough, I don’t care what level you are, you’re going to get beat down quick,” said Coach Lee.
With 29 years of coaching under his belt and generations of players walking through his gym doors, it will certainly be tough to fill Coach Lee’s shoes and no announcements have been made about who may step up to take over as head coach.
Of course, Coach Lee wants to see the program thrive after he leaves, but worries about how it will transition after having been led by one coach for so many years.
“It’s always been a Coach Lee program. I want it to be a Clewiston High School program,” he said.
Thursday, Jan. 22: Lake Placid, home, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 23: Pahokee, home, 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 27: Okeechobee, away, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 30: Moore Haven, away, 7 p.m.
The first district tournament game will be held at Glades Central High School at 6 p.m. on Feb. 3. The championship game will be held Feb. 6 at Glades Central at 7 p.m.
Regional tournaments start Feb. 12.