Jackson is one of the area’s top basketball programs, no denying history.
But if it feels like forever since the Tigers have been playing this deep into the postseason, that’s not quite too far off.
When Jackson (24-6) takes the court Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the Class 5A state semifinals against Tampa Catholic (24-6), it marks a welcome back to final four relevance for the Tigers.
“It’s going to be a great experience for them because it’s one you can remember for the rest of your life,” said Tigers coach James Collins. “It’ll be one you’ll always cherish being able to do something that not a lot of people do.”
Collins would know.
The Tigers have five state championships, tied with now-defunct Arlington Country Day for the most in area history. But Jackson’s last title came back in 1993, when Collins polished off a record-setting career with 28 points to help Jackson dust Rockledge, 90-67, for the 2A crown.
Collins was named the state’s Mr. Basketball the same day.
Since that afternoon, the Tigers have managed just one trip to the state semifinals, 2002.
Jackson had flirted with returning to the final four since, but had been denied in the regional finals three times (2008, ’09, ’15).
Collins said that 2019 didn’t begin with what looked like a team that was poised to end that drought.
“I think we’ve grown mentally,” he said. “Earlier in the year, anybody could have beaten us. We [weren’t] quite mentally tough enough to win certain ball games.”
The Tigers learned how to play together.
“It’s real exciting, shows that all of our hard work has been paying off, but we still got our eyes on the prize,” said Jackson wing Joshua Knox.
“Lot of believing in each other. Lot of believing in Coach. Coach plays a big part in this. He’s been watching us since I’ve been in the eighth grade. We’ve been following him. He’s been to the NBA. We know we’re in good hands.”
Knox, one of five seniors whom Collins said has been a major reason for the Tigers’ success, leads the team in scoring at 13.1 ppg.
Jackson is one of two Duval County public schools to reach the state semifinals this year, joining Paxon, which plays in the Class 6A semi on Thursday.
The last Gateway Conference team to play for a state championship was Ribault in 2014. Not since Raines won back-to-back titles in 2003-04 has an area public school claimed a state championship.
Since 2000, area private schools have been the consistent performers in the state tournament. Private school programs have played in 16 title games since that year, going 9-7.
Area public schools have seven appearances in that span, and a 3-4 mark (Raines’ two and Nease in 2002 have the only titles).