For a third consecutive year, Mater Academy will get a shot at advancing to the Class 6A Final Four.
The Lions, who’ve amassed a 61-14 record during that span, haven’t been able to recover from a specific hump: Regional Finals. In almost every way possible, the obstacle has been deemed too difficult to surpass for Mater.
That could change as soon as Friday.
Following a hard-fought 55-53 win over Doral Academy in the 6A Region 4 semifinals, the consistently successful program finds itself taking on an undefeated Martin County (21-0) squad, with a chance to disentangle themselves from the long-lasting knot.
“After the last two years, we return a lot of our core, hoping the experience of being here before will give us some confidence,” coach Eric Rodriguez told 305 Sports. “We have a tough team who has grown together over the years. I believe I have some kids who won’t shy away from the moment.”
Rodriguez took over the coaching job at Mater after his father and Miami-Dade basketball legend, Shakey Rodriguez, passed away before the season commenced. With big shoes to fill, Rodriguez’s experience as an assistant and commander has been put on display, totaling a 19-2 record entering Friday’s contest.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of them after facing a lot of the circumstances that have crossed our way, but that’s life,” he said. “It’s a compliment to our seniors who have led us all the way. They have done a great job sticking together. It’s a special group of kids. I know my dad would be proud of them.”
Last year, the Lions were a quarter short of defeating Dillard, as the Malik Reneau-led group fell 71-58. With Reneau departing to Montverde Academy, along with Isaiah Josue playing post-grad, it was up to Rodriguez to keep a solid core that’ll lead to winning ways.
Ready to take control of the unit, there was Ryan Sanchez, averaging 16.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Having been there through it all, Sanchez understands the mistakes and comprehends what has to be done.
“It’s a great experience for it being my third year back to the same place,” Sanchez said. We just need to take it a step further to get over this hump and complete the mission for Shakey.”
Even without Reneau taking charge, Sanchez has always remained confident about his team’s potential. “We don’t need really him, but he was a big piece,” he said back in September.
Along with the senior guard, Coral Gables transfer Jimel Lane has continued to emerge as one of the top juniors in the county, putting up over 20 points per game, mixed in with 5.5 rebounds. That duo has kept Mater in check, with notable wins over Columbus, Western and Hallandale.
All of those games together come down to Friday night, where the right to hold a beloved regional trophy is at stake. For Rodriguez, he believes the likes of his five seniors – Sanchez, Jace Budin, Torrence Shelman, Ryan Workman, Rashad Parms – can make the difference.
“My dad typically referred to our seniors as “winners”, Rodriguez said. “[He says] it’s one of the highest compliments he can give a player. Our seniors have been our leaders all year. They set the tone with their energy and toughness.”