By:  J. Daniel Pearson for Positively Osceola

When it comes to Osceola County  high school sports, winning an Orange Belt Conference championship traditionally comes with a subdued celebration, a few high-fives and then a photo opportunity with the trophy.  

But when St. Cloud took down Poinciana, 43-36, to take the 2024 OBC boys basketball championship on Friday night, it sparked a wild celebration between players and coaches, as family members and fans stormed the court in an impromptu party that lasted well over 30 minutes.

The St. Cloud’s reaction was more than understandable.  

Heading into this year, the Bulldogs had endured a streak of consecutive losing seasons that has lasted more than two decades.  On top of that, they had never won a boys’ basketball OBC championship and were considered far from a threat to win the title – being seeded fourth heading into the tournament.

The Bulldogs responded by taking down #5 Gateway in the quarterfinals (47-40) and #1 Harmony in the semifinals (54-52) before completing the sweep with the win over the second-seeded Eagles.

“You always list winning the Orange Belt Conference and district tournaments among your team goals,” first year St. Cloud head coach Tommy Billiteri said.  “But privately, I felt that if we could just post a winning record and be competitive against the better teams in the county, it would be a successful year.  But these kids continue to surprise me.  They work so hard in practice and they are so aggressive and play so hard in games, they continue to exceed any expectations many people had for them.”

Still the game did not start that way for St. Cloud. 

Poinciana looked poised to take their first OBC crown since winning back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016, when Craig Walls’ team raced out to a 16-11 lead in the first period.  But momentum would shift back to St. Cloud and that started when Eagles senior Daniel Melendez went down with what appeared to be a serious leg injury with six second remaining in the quarter.  Melendez, who was averaging more than nine points a game, did not return.

Although the Bulldogs hit just one of two field goal attempts in the second quarter, they out-scored Poinciana 12-2 in the period as Josiah Cotto scored 10 points in the period – including eight of 10 from the free throw line as St. Cloud took a 23-18 lead into the half.

“Not sure how much of it was because of the injury but Poinciana surprised us by falling into a 2-3 zone, which was surprising because they so good at man-to-man defense.  Josiah really did a great job attacking that zone and drawing contact,” Billiteri said.

With both teams playing solid defense, neither team could get much going in the third period.  Through six minutes, each team managed to score just four points as the Bulldogs maintained their five-point lead at 27-22.  That would change dramatically in the final 90 seconds of the period.  Guard Elijah Davis hit a three pointer and then converted a three-point play on a driving layup and foul shot to spur a late 8-2 run as the Eagles took a 30-29 lead into the final stanza.

But the final period would belong to junior standout Alex Springs and the Bulldogs.  

The team’s leading scorer, Springs was held to three points in the first three quarters but he would explode with eight fourth period points. With the Bulldogs leading 36-35, Springs would be fouled while grabbing his own rebound and laying it in.  After completing the 3-point play, it would put St. Cloud up 39-35.  Malaki Baker would add a basket down the stretch and Cotto would hit a pair of free throws for the final margin of victory.  .  “I said the other day I thought he was one of the best if not best player in the county and I think he put that on display again tonight,” Billiteri said of Springs’ heroics.

Still, Springs was far from the only hero for St. Cloud.  Cotto chipped in 12 points – going 10 of 12 from foul line.  Sophomore Baker had seven points and five rebounds and while fellow sophomore Xavier Perez did not score, he tallied five big rebounds and four blocked shots – all of which occurred in the second half.

“It’s been a great season so far and we are just going to keep playing hard and see how far we can take this thing,” Billiteri added.  “We have a lot of basketball left this year, but since we are playing so many sophomores and juniors, it’s hard not to think about the future too.”

Hakeem Alvena led all Poinciana scorers with 15 points, he also added 10 rebounds and blocked shot.  Davis tallied 11 points; while Devin Williams had four with six rebounds and blocked shot.

The Eagles (13-5) conclude the regular season with games against Horizon and Discovery this week.  They will compete in the Class 7A, District 6 tournament the following week – where they could collide with county schools Harmony, Osceola, Celebration and Tohopekaliga. St. Cloud had three games left in the regular season, facing Horizon, Melbourne Central Catholic and Tohopekaliga as they fight for playoff seeding for the Class 6A, District 7 Tournament.

In the preliminary contest, Harmony went to 17-4 on the season with a 61-60 overtime win over Osceola in the third place game of the OBC Tournament.  Trailing 58-56, Jeremy Penner hit a three to put Harmony up 59-58.  A Luke McCrimon basket put Osceola back in front but with five second remaining, Noah Tribe was fouled on the floor.  He hit both free throws to put the Longhorns back in front and the game ended with Osceola’s Helio Quinan’s desperation three bouncing harmlessly off the backboard.  Osceola, which fell to 8-11, lost a third straight game to Longhorns by two points or less.