Arlington Country Day brings home fifth straight state title

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The irony was not lost on Rex Morgan.

Minutes after winning his fifth consecutive state championship at Arlington Country Day School (Jacksonville, Fla.) -- an 80-41 rout of Summit Christian (West Palm Beach, Fla.) -- the 60-year-old head coach shared a story about his first playoff experience at ACD while sitting in the hallways at The Lakeland Center.

"We played Malone and lost 100-37," Morgan told his two star players Wallace Judge and Rodney McGruder. "I think they hit 21 3-pointers in that game."

On Saturday, Morgan became the first coach in state history to win five championships in a row while his program tied a state record for consecutive titles. It's a record shared with Malone, a town of less than 2,000 located in Northwest Florida.

"It's a credit to the great student-athletes we've had here," Morgan said. "They've bought into the program and the style of ball we play. Malone has been a great program in this state for many years and it's an honor to share this record with them."

While the number of titles won by the Malone teams of the 1990s and the ACD teams of the 2000s may be the same, the schools' successes have been received very differently.

Malone is a revered program in the state of Florida, at one time considered to be an institution in the state tournament. Many of Malone's top players have been in the program since they were seventh graders.

Arlington Country Day is a Nike-sponsored program from one of the largest areas of the state. The Apaches have also made the state tournament an annual stop in their season, but they are perceived as bullies -- a team full of All-Americans and Division I talents beating up on schools in the state's smaller classification.

In the 13-year history of ACD, Morgan has been its only basketball head coach and he's seen the ups and downs of a program that has as many critics as it does basketball accolades.

In 2001, the Apaches, led by eventual Division I signees TeeJay Bannister and O.J. Gilmore were shocked in the finals by The Benjamin School (Palm Beach, Fla.). After the game, members of the Florida High School Activities Association witnessed ACD players throwing their second-place medals into the garbage. That incident, among others during the championship, led to the FHSAA's decision to place the Apaches on probation for three years. It's an incident Morgan says was "unfortunate."

For three years, arguably the best team in the state of Florida couldn't play for a state championship and for two years, they couldn't leave the state to play in national tournaments.

This past year, Morgan lost his close friend and assistant coach, Dale Lowe, to a heart attack, and in April was relieved of his duties by the school's former CEO, Deborah Lichtward, after he was accused of lying to students about the school's accreditation and financial status. He denied all the charges and was reinstated at the start of the 2008-09 school year.

ACD's critics, which include some of the coaches of teams it plays, have openly questioned Morgan's coaching abilities. (Those coaches will get a break next year, when ACD moves to Class 1A for two seasons.) The common feeling is that it doesn't take much coaching to win in the state's second smallest classification with a handful for Division I signees.

But Morgan's not concerned about the critics.

"I'm just old enough for that stuff not to bother me and many times I just consider the source," Morgan said. "There are a lot of misconceptions about this program and the student-athletes here, but they work hard and they have done well in the classroom.

"I always said I'd coach a McDonald's and Jordan All-Star game before I was named 2A Coach of the Year," he added. "Two years ago, I did coach in the Jordan game."

While Morgan doesn't take the criticism personally, some of his former players definitely do.

"Coach Morgan is a great coach and still is a great influence on my life," said Brian Hoff, a senior at Florida State. "I've been able to use the things that I learned at ACD and in that basketball program to enjoy success at FSU."

Hoff entered FSU's program as a walk-on and after four years earned a scholarship from coach Leonard Hamilton.

"There will always be critics of successful programs," Hoff added. "People will give ACD a bad reputation because so many kids transfer there, but who wouldn't want to go to a school that has that sort of success and is still very strong academically."

ACD's success and national schedule will continue to attract high-profile transfers. And don't expect the Apaches to give up their annual trip to Lakeland to play for the state championship anytime soon.

"I could see them winning eight, ten … maybe twelve in a row if they wanted to," said Orlando Sentinel writer Buddy Collings. "The only thing that might stop them is the state cutting back the schedule and possibly limiting the amount of national tournaments they can play."

Last week the FHSAA announced a 20 percent cutback in schedules of every sport but football -- a move that was designed to save money in this struggling economy.

That ruling could convince ACD to move away from the Association and play a national schedule, a path chosen by state schools Montverde Academy and Oldsmar Christian.

But Morgan said that's not currently being considered, so expect to see Morgan in Lakeland again -- quite possibly hoisting up a sixth consecutive trophy.

Around the state championships

• One of the emerging stars from this past weekend's finals is junior guard Charles Hankerson Jr. of Coral Reef. The 6-foot-4 guard already has offers from Auburn and VCU but should expect to get more after scoring 27 points and grabbing nine rebounds to lead the Barracudas to a 6A championship over Olympia.

• Springstead failed to become the state's only team to have a perfect season when the Eagles fell to Cocoa 75-60 in the 4A finals. Cocoa, which won a Class 3A football championship in December, became the first school to win the football-basketball double since former FSU standout and NFL first-round pick Peter Warrick led Bradenton Southeast to a similar feat in 1994-1995.

Corey Long is a freelance writer in Florida.