Months ago, Archbishop Coleman Carroll was seen as a legitimate contender to stampede past opponents in Miami-Dade.
Starring Micah Bell, a transfer from Chapel Hill (Douglasville, Georgia) with multiple Division I offers, the Bulldogs opened the new season with high expectations, and a need to prove their worthiness. That was until a 2-4 starting loss, which included a blowout loss to Westminster Christian (74-51) shattered all hopes, and plunged them off any serious consideration amongst other top teams in the county.
The disheartening emergence of ACC eventually led to Bell’s departure back to the Peach State, along with a coaching change that put Anthony Morales in charge and with a need to embrace a ‘next man up’ narrative.
With a total of eight players on the roster, Morales’ group won six of their last seven regular-season games. That spark got them to the 3A District 15 championship versus Florida Christian, who they couldn’t overcome in an action-packed 67-64 loss.
Overlooked by many, the start of the 3A Regional playoffs was Carroll’s shot at proving their worth. And in a span of a week, they’ve done exactly that.
“[Our season] has been a bit of a rollercoaster,” assistant coach Jelani Thomas told 305 Sports. “Now we found a way to weather the storm.”
ACC’s first matchup was against the same Warriors team that blew past them earlier in the season and had since made their case as the No. 1 team in Miami. That didn’t phase the Bulldogs, whose five-man rotation gave a stacked WCS team a run for their money, ultimately dethroning them with a buzzer-beater from senior guard, Dominick Nelson.
“My guys had their backs against the wall. There was just no other options,” Thomas said on the 56-53 win. “Everybody had been counting us out for a while, nobody respects their game and thought we were going to lose. There’s no pressure on us, we were supposed to go out there and lose. So why not try and shock some people.”
Nelson finished the game with 11 points, while junior, Anthony Salazar had 17 and fellow senior, Andy Chavez added 13. Most importantly, they reeled in a shocking upset and had the last laugh against the Warriors.
“The energy was good. We were up for the challenge and even though we lost before, we knew what we had to do to win this game,” Nelson said.
The tension between the two started in a typical Summer League contest at Florida Christian, where both teams got into scuffles that made them pinpoint their future matchups as one to care about.
This time around, the Bulldogs simply wanted it more.
“I wouldn’t say the kids don’t like each other, but every time they see each other they wanna beat them,” Thomas added. “I know my kids really wanted to get back at them.”
Next up came a semifinal contest versus a Patriots team Carroll had lost twice to in the span of their shortened season. On the road for Tuesday’s game, FCS started hot offensively, forming a 20-point lead early in the second quarter. That was until a spurt from Nelson and his group cut it to 10 by halftime and, in the end, were able to force overtime.
Down by two with 9.9 seconds remaining, a rebound by senior Brandon Williams led to a tipped pass to Nelson, who dished it to junior Michael Zaharas, draining a three-pointer from the corner as time expired. The final score: 69-68.
“The feeling was and still is amazing and exciting,” Zaharas said. “Just running down the floor to my favorite spot in that corner where Dominick found me for that perfect shot.”
The Bulldogs now move onto the 3A Regional Finals to take on Miami Country Day (11-9), led by senior Jordan Cooke. ACC opens as favorites to advance to Lakeland, but that won’t limit their hunger to continue proving many wrong.
“I’m proud of the hard work and dedication my teammates have been bringing in day in and day out at practice,” Zaharas said. “We take pride in our newly founded play style that has helped us throughout our run. We hope it will help us down the road. We’re all locked in and that’s why we’ve been able to go on this run as a family.”