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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The night Consuelo Lezcano dominated like no one else ever did

Recently, I came up with a list of my all-time best high school girls basketball team. It was not as easy as you would think, but I believe I came up with an elite list.

My guards would be rather easy, even if there were a ton of them to pick from -- Carol Walters of Lakewood (Class of 1987) and Kris Witfill of Monsignor Donovan (Class of 1989) would be my No. 1 and 2 guards, respectively. My swing player, the No. 3 spot, would be Lucie Fontanella of Toms River East (Class of '90). My power forward at No. 4 would be 1,800-point career scorer Candice McCallum of Southern Regional (Class of '97).

My center? That would be a no-brainer. Even if you never saw her play more than one game, the one game you needed to see Consuelo Lezcano play was on Thursday night, February 14, 2002.

It's the game legends are made and talked about for a lifetime.

Here's the setup going into that night at the Marathon High School gymnasium off of Mile Marker 50 in the Florida Keys -- the Dolphins had stunned a very good Westminster Christian team from Miami in the District 16-2A championship on February 9. Lezcano, the Dolphins' agile 6-foot-3 center with a large wingspan for arms, had 23 points and 13 rebounds in that game, while teammate and guard Veronica Doughman added 17.

It was a joyous time for the school, the young ladies who wore the Marathon High uniform and head coach Teresa Konrath, who had coached that program for a few years before finally winning a district title.

With that victory, Marathon got to host a first-round game in the state tournament that Valentine's Day against the District 15-2A runners-up. In this case, it was Miami's Archbishop Curley High School.

It also meant that I got to get away from my Key West Citizen office on a Thursday night and travel the 54 miles, including the famous Seven-Mile Bridge, into Marathon to see the young ladies host a state tournament game, the first time a state girls basketball game was hosted in the Keys in a while.

But all that week, my car, a Ford Thunderbird LX, was having trouble. It started to overheat and by the Thursday of the game, I couldn't drive it. I wound up having to take a rental at my Ford dealership on US-1 for $25 that night to get me up the Keys. They didn't have a regular car available, so I wound up having to take a pickup truck, which I was hardly familiar with since I've never driven anything that had a hatchback in my life.

Then again, I wasn't driving the car backwards to Marathon, either. And it had a CD player, so I was more than good to go.

A couple of days earlier, I had done the preview for our paper. Three years earlier, Marathon and Curley had played in the state tournament in Miami and the result wasn't even close -- Curley 73, Marathon 24. Coach Konrath didn't have to tell me what kind of a beatdown it was. And she didn't have to tell me the final score padding was unnecessary, either.

If there ever was a time when a sports team was out for blood, it was these young ladies from the Middle Keys, even if most of them didn't play in that game three years earlier.

The one thing I did know about this Curley team going in was they were athletic. Oh, another thing I knew about the Curley girls -- they were very small. Their tallest player was 5-foot-7, a mere eight inches shorter than Lezcano.

If the athleticism -- and the lack of putting the ball in the basket -- was not going to be a factor, figure that both Lezcano was going to have a huge night and that the Dolphins were going to win big.

When I got into the Marathon gym that night for the opening round of the Region 4-2A tournament, the place was starting to get packed. Apparently word got out to every corner of the town and surrounding Keys because the joint was jammed and jumpin'. Marathon athletic director Bill Sympson looked somewhere between overwhelmed and stunned.

Then I got to look at both teams warming up beforehand. Lezcano stood out like a sore thumb going through the layup drills for her team. Then I looked at the other end at the Lilliputians from Archbishop Curley warming up.

I just hoped Curley had this really awesome strategy to handle the big girl.

Well, needless to say, Lezcano didn't even have to leap far off the ground to win the opening jump ball, get it to teammate Stacey Poole, who got it to Doughman for the game's first basket.

Now it was the Knights' turn to do something. A long jump shot. No good. Lezcano comes down with the rebound. Marathon works the ball to Lezcano, who put it up and in to make it 4-0.

Next trip down, Lezcano alters a shot. Marathon rebounds. Doughman scores. Now it's 6-0. Timeout, Curley.

I find it hard to believe that Archbishop Curley's head coach and assistants had no gameplan going into this. It was totally amazing. I started wondering in that first couple of minutes of this potential blowout if Curley's plan was to just run around like chickens with loose heads and make the offense up as it went along.

I find it harder to believe they didn't know about this 6-3 giant in the middle.

But I find it easy to believe that coach Konrath was telling her Dolphins to keep doing what they're doing because it looked like the Knight players had already soiled themselves.

Then somewhere in that timeout, the Curley coach told her players to go to the basket. Seems normal -- get the big girl in foul trouble and get her out of the game.

They soon found out that if they weren't taller than 5-7 and didn't have an up-and-under move or something that would draw contact on the arm or body, they were in huge trouble.

The first girl took her shot at the basket after beating the guards off the dribble. Up went the shot. Back the shot went toward the Marathon guards. Same thing on the next possession -- down the lane went the Curley guard, putting up her shot, only to get it swatted by Lezcano.

This trend went on for the rest of the half. Actually, it went on for the rest of the game, either that first description or they would have their shot altered by Lezcano putting it up, not have it blocked, but have Lezcano come down with an easy rebound. And in a couple of possessions, Knights players even put shots up that not only did Lezcano block, but also caught in mid-air.

And in one instance -- one that goes down on the all-time list of greatest memories -- one Knights player put a shot up that not only Lezcano stuffed her with, but took the ball out of her hands for the steal! It took me a while to pick my jaw back up from off the floor.

By the third quarter, my line for marking rebounds was already filled up next to Lezcano's number. And soon after that, the second line I had to make up to put more X's (defensive boards) and O's (offensive boards) was filling up.

The Knights were overmatched. Not by an entire team, but by one player.

Marathon went on to the easy 66-31 victory over Curley, which I still to this day find amazing that this team even scored 31 points. A third of those points, though, came after Konrath had taken Lezcano out in the fourth quarter for good.

The final line for the 6-3 Marathon High junior is the kind of line you have to read at least four or five times before it sinks in -- 26 points, 14 blocked shots, 35 rebounds.

Yes, you did read that right -- 35 rebounds, a number only Russell and Chamberlain easily attained back in the NBA day when they dominated their center positions. And she could have easily had 40 or more rebounds had she stayed in until the end.

I am left with that memory of the most dominant one-person performance in my 26-plus years in the business in any sport and having to explain what it was like to see it that night. There's sadly no videotape I know of to see that performance again, unless coach Konrath has something from it to show.

Realistically, the game was against kids not her own size. Yes, I get that. But if she wasn't getting college coaches' attentions before, she sure did after that.

Marathon's season would end with a loss at Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale in the next round, but Lezcano had already cemented her place as our Keys girls basketball player of the year at the Citizen for the third straight year.

And she cemented her place as one of the state's best, earning second-team all-state honors in 2A.

Unfortunately, I was not able to help her push her way to first-team all-state in the class in the 2002-03 season. The higher-ups at the Citizen felt the need to no longer want me two months later and the people they hired to take over were clueless -- and worse, they had no relationship with any of the people who ran the Florida Sports Writers Association.

Lezcano had another dominant season as a senior in 2002-03 and would have easily been put onto first team in 2A had those people who replaced me even taken one damn minute to pay attention to what was going on beyond Key West. They simply dropped the ball for this young lady getting any honors. And I'm not totally sure Konrath ever forgave the Citizen sports staff for that. If I were her, I sure as hell wouldn't have.

She was completely snubbed. Thankfully, UCLA thought enough of Lezcano to give her a full ride in 2003.

Unemployed the next winter, I decided to take a road trip to Florida where I actually had a job interview at a paper set up on the left side of the state. I got to the Keys and stayed with my good friend Penni and her kids at my old apartment complex on Duck Avenue. I could never thank Penni enough for the three days I was there.

I got to take her youngest daughter with me in my new car -- yes, the Thunderbird that I had trouble with soon died after finding out there were cracked blocks -- on the Thursday night I was there. The two of us headed back up the Keys to Marathon where I told her about how amazing Lezcano was.

The Dolphins had won another district title and this time, they were hosting a different District 15-2A runnnerup in Florida Christian of Miami. The smallish Patriots, unlike the Knights the year before, at least had a plan to combat Lezcano. What they did was to take their two best defenders and shadow her everywhere she went that night.

Great idea in hindsight, but bad execution, especially when Marathon's remaining four -- which included Doughman and Poole -- were tons better than the three defenders left to guard them. But it was amusing, almost hilarious to watch these two young ladies chase Lezcano all over the court when the Dolphins had the ball. I told Penni's daughter that the next step might be for the big girl to go out into the hallway of the gymnasium and take the two girls with her. She could have probably ordered something from the snack stand and the two girls would have been there to defend her from getting that snack.

Marathon won, 67-41, and Lezcano still put up 22 points, 26 rebounds and 11 blocked shots -- even with the double team a good amount of the night. And she, like the year before, was taken out of the game for good well when the game was in hand.

She never had the career anyone could wish for her in college, but I'm also sure she was happy to get out of the Keys. One thing this bright, bi-lingual young lady told me about was how she couldn't wait to see what was out there after leaving. I lost touch with her by early 2004, but her memory will always be there.

Especially with the memory of the most dominating performance I've ever witnessed, that would be a no-brainer.

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