• See game coverage, page 7
There was a loud buzzing in The Hive Saturday night.
Bartow basketball fans were ready to see then 26-3 (now 27-3) boys basketball team face off against Oak Ridge giving them a chance to return to the finals this weekend, and they were confident they would, many thinking this is a superior squad that won the finals in 2010.
But after falling behind 6-2 in the opening minutes of the game, it was relatively quiet in The Hive. Then the buzz got brewing as Bartow closed out the first period with a 15-8 lead and never looked back winning against the fifth-ranked Pioneers 75-58 in the regional semifinal.
With the victory, Bartow will face off against Pompano Beach’s Blanche Ely at 4 p.m. Friday in the Class 7A state semifinals at the Lakeland Center. Martin County and Orlando Evans will face each other in the 2:30 p.m. game Friday. The winners of Friday’s games will play for the state championship at 5:05 p.m. Saturday in the Lakeland Center.
“They’re the best in Polk County,” Shaun Russell said before the game started.
“We’re state-bound,” BHS classmate Chenya Sealey immediately shot in.
Regulars at all the basketball games this year, the pair said this was the best hoops team they’ve seen.
Aaron Davis, who graduated in 2008 and now attends Florida International University, said there are very few teams Bartow can’t handle as long as “we stay focused.”
“We’ve gotta be strong. They could be the best team we’ve ever had,” he said adding that this is not only good for Bartow but this is good for the whole county.
In the top row of the stands were seven students painted with basketball shirts and each with a letter for the town’s name reeving up the fans, though the fans didn’t seem to need it. The squad shows up not only at the basketball games, but they appear at all sporting events, except baseball because three of them — letter B which is Matt Martin, T who is N.J. Williams who also paints his face half orange and half blue, and “!,” who is Coy McLaughlin — play on that team.
And, as painful as the painting can be, they show their team and town spirit.
It takes about two to two and a half hours to get painted up and while stripping down of the paint is faster, it’s also more painful.
“It’s furniture paint, so after wearing it for a while it sticks to you and hurts the skin,” Jerod Gadd said, stretching his stomach. “Taking it off doesn’t take much time at all.”
But whatever game they appear at, they are sure to get the fans cheering for the team.
“We make ourselves known,” McLaughlin said.
The students who dress the part include B, who is Martin, A — Rhett Corbett, R — Gavin Osborn, T - Williamson, O — Avery Tolley, W — Gadd and ! — McLaughlin. Also filling in Saturday night wearing a penguin mask was Don Wells.
And also with them Saturday night and regulars at the games were members of the girls’ softball team, another team that is a regular at the state finals for their sport.
Is there a rival between the two teams that often tops their leagues each season?
“I think we’re better but they’re great,” said Lexi Mathis with a giggle.
Others present say they love to watch them play.
And why wouldn’t they be, after all Bartow has outscored its opponents 1,797-1,292 this season and in its 27 victories, 16 of them have been by more than 20 points. And, Saturday, they beat one of the state’s better teams by 17 points.
Admission to the finals is $10 a day, parking costs $7. Buy them online at www.thelakelandcenter.com.