Two state runner-up finishes highlight Coach of the Year winners

Taking a team to the first state title game in school history is quite a way to cap a career. So is going out as Coach of the Year.

That’s the story for Santa Fe’s Elliot Harris, who along with Buchholz coach Niya Johnson, Trenton’s Cedric Booth and Hawthorne’s Cornelius Ingram took home Coach of the Year honors for the inaugural Mainstreet Daily News/Prep Zone All Area Basketball Team.

Harris led the Raiders to a 20-6 record and to within an eyelash of Santa Fe’s first 4A boys basketball state title. Santa Fe won 15 of 16 games at one point, beat rival Eastside (Gainesville) three times, and knocked off Lake Highland Prep (Orlando) on the road to advance to the final four in Lakeland for the first time since 2002.

After beating West Nassau (Callahan) in a 64-63 thriller in the state semifinals, Santa Fe rallied from a double-digit third quarter deficit against Pine Crest (Fort Lauderdale) in the 4A state championship game before falling in double overtime.

“This season was an unbelievable ride,” said Harris, who is Coach of the Year for big school boys. “We knew at the beginning of the season that we were good enough but when they bought in, there was no stopping us.”

There was more than just basketball going on for Coach Harris this season. His wife Clydina was also dealing with a cancer diagnosis, creating unique challenges for the coach.

“With COVID and other personal issues, I missed three weeks during the season and my coaching staff did an amazing job of keeping the kids focused. The Coach of the Year trophy truly goes to Thaddis Merricks and Glen Banks. Without them, we would not have been in a position to win a championship.”

Harris retired as head coach after his 13th season as Santa Fe head coach. He has been involved with Santa Fe basketball as an assistant coach since the late 90s and is a 1995 graduate of Santa Fe.

Trenton’s Cedric Booth is Coach of the Year in the boys small school category. In his second year at the helm of the program, Booth led the Tigers to their first district title since 2000 and a berth in the Region 3-1A final.

Trenton started the season struggling at 3-8 but won five in a row right after the Christmas and later knocked off second-seed Union County (Lake Butler) and No. 1 seed Bell in the district tournament. The Tigers beat Hamilton County (Jasper) at home in the region semifinal before Madison County eliminated them in the region final round.

“I’m honored to receive this award, humbled and grateful,” Booth said. “The record didn’t show how special this team was due to COVID-19. With such a challenging year to play, how we did just speaks volumes of the fight they give day in and day out.”

The Coach of the Year for small school girls is a familiar one in Cornelius Ingram. He was also the inaugural Mainstreet Daily News/Prep Zone small school Coach of the Year in football.

Ingram led the Hawthorne girls basketball team to within 10 seconds of back-to-back 1A state titles. Ingram had previously led the Lady Hornets to their first basketball state title in March 2020 and also guided the Hawthorne football team to a state runner-up finish last December.

This Hawthorne team finished 20-5 which included wins over 7A state semifinalist Oakleaf (Orange Park) and 6A playoff team Columbia (Lake City), with their only losses coming to two 7A and two 4A playoff teams.

The Hornets had no trouble advancing back to Lakeland, winning their region final game 47-29 at top-ranked Wildwood before eliminating Trenton 43-32 in the state semifinal round. In the state championship game, Hawthorne led almost the entire game but couldn’t overcome 33 turnovers. The team lost 40-37 to Ponce De Leon on a three-pointer with 14 seconds left.

Finally, girls big school Coach of the Year honors go to Niya Johnson of Buchholz (Gainesville). Johnson, who won state titles as a player at P.K. Yonge (Gainesville) and a national championship at Baylor, returned home to Gainesville to coach high school basketball and returned the Bobcats program to glory.

In 2020-21, Buchholz won its first 10 games en route to a 15-5 mark and its first district title since 2013. This season marked the Bobcats’ first regional playoff appearance in seven years.

Buchholz avenged a 36-35 loss at Columbia (Lake City) during the regular season by rallying the district championship game to win 50-40 on Columbia’s home court. Buchholz then beat Milton in the Region 1-6A quarterfinal before falling to Navarre in the region semifinal round.

This is the fifth in a five-part series unveiling the 2021 All Area Basketball Team, presented by Mainstreet Daily News and The Prep Zone. To see the other stories and the full girls and boys squads, click here

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