Boys basketball state semifinals: Ponte Vedra ready for 1st shot in final four

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The boys basketball state semifinals are this week in Lakeland and four teams from the area are headed down there. A glance at Ponte Vedra, which plays in the Class 6A final four on Thursday night.

Class 6A state semifinals

Ponte Vedra (26-3) vs. Winter Haven (23-7)

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.

Where: RP Funding Center, Lakeland.

Road here: Ponte Vedra d. Booker T. Washington, 68-35; d. Crestview, 57-49; d. Fleming Island, 60-49; Winter Haven d. Edgewater, 68-60; d. Wekiva, 70-50; d. Lakeland, 49-39.

Winner gets: Wharton or Martin County in the state championship on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

Watch it: The game will be streamed on the NFHS Network. Cost for a monthly pass is $10.99.

Glance: The Sharks are enjoying the best season in program history. Their previous best in the playoffs was a regional final trip in 2016 under coach Bud Beech. Third-year coach Kevin Whirity has shaped this program from 10-14 in his first season to back-to-back years of 22 or more victories. Whirity said Beech, who retired three years ago, has been an excellent sounding board during Ponte Vedra’s run. A strong Sharks team last year with F Luke Pirris and G Nathan Bunkosky leading the way improved its depth with the addition of F Ross Candelino, a transfer from Bishop Kenny. Candelino’s father, Anthony, was the last coach to lead an area program to a state championship (Bolles in 2016). G JT Kelly boosted his scoring average. Those four players all come in at 10 ppg or more in scoring, with Candelino topping the list at 14.1. Ponte Vedra will be at a disadvantage in the paint. Winter Haven is similarly heavy on balanced scorers. At G, 6-5 Isaac Celiscar averages a double-double (18.3 ppg, 10.6 rpg). F Dylan James is 6-8 and comes in at 10.2 ppg and 7.1 rpg. Another G, Jamie Phillips Jr., is 6-5 and averaging 13.4 ppg and 4.9 rpg. Could symmetry be in Ponte Vedra’s favor? The only FHSAA boys basketball championship won by a St. Johns County program came 20 years ago — March 8, 2002 — when Nease beat Key West, 75-59 for the Class 3A crown. Hastings Vocational (1934) and Murray High School (1964) won Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association state championships before the FHSAA was integrated.

Coach speak: “We got a team is what we’ve got. We got a got a band of brothers that play cohesive basketball, inside the system, inside themselves and they truly embrace and enjoy who they are and understand what they’re bringing into the table. And for that, I couldn’t be prouder as a coach to watch guys just play unselfishly and play team basketball.” — Ponte Vedra coach Kevin Whirity.

Player speak: “Every time we step on the court we have the heart of a lion. Coach Whirity and the coaching staff do a great job scouting, finding bigs weaknesses to attack. It’s not about the size. You box out, you do what you’re supposed to do. You do how he wants you to. We have faith in Coach Whirity and the staff and they give us the game plan to execute and win every game and that’s what we’ve done.” — Sharks forward Ross Candelino.

Player speak: “I don’t think we’re all that top-heavy [in scoring], you know. I think we have guys one through 15 who are always going out there ready to compete, ready to give it their all. And I think that’s what makes us so special. Like you said, we don’t have the height, the build, but I think it’s just our competitiveness and our willingness to get out there and give it our all.” — Sharks guard JT Kelly.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.