LAKELAND, FL (WFLA) – “I was 1-and-2 against Lakeland High School,” recalls Kathleen head coach Irving Strickland. “We won in my 10th grade year back in 1988.”
Strickland laughs, eyeing the camera through reflective sunglasses. “I know I don’t look that old. I keep myself up. I know I look good for my age, so thank you.”
When it comes to intricacies of the Kathleen/Lakeland rivalry, there are few men more knowledgeable than Strickland.
“Being a graduate and alumnus of Kathleen High School, you get excited,” he explains. “I still get goosebumps every Friday, regardless of who we are playing. I have to be in the office by myself, listening to my music. This Friday, I may have to start listening to my music a little earlier.”
Strickland says the music calms him down and helps him focus. “I’m old school. I like old school R&B, some jazz… I will listen to a few Phil Collins songs. A lot of people don’t know that!”
In the air tonight- a chance to finish the regular season undefeated by knocking off Lakeland (6-2), a team that bullied Kathleen (9-0) for two decades, but now needs a win to ensure a playoff berth.
“You have to find a way to channel their energy and focus to stay on what’s at hand,” detailed Strickland. “They’re excited, you can hear them talking about it from time to time, but I think the main thing they’re excited about is having a chance to play for a district title for a third straight year.”
Just five miles away sleeps a giant. 18-time district champion, 6-time state champion, 5-time coach of the year, 2-time USA Today national champion, Bill Castle. He’s been coaching at Lakeland for 44 years, and has learned a thing or two about playing against the Red Devils.
“I think Kathleen has got the best team they’ve had in a long, long time,” admits Castle. “We’ve won a few Kathleen games, but they’ve all been real close and a lot of them have been won in the last few seconds of the game so you can always expect a down-to-the-wire type game.”
Will Castle lead Lakeland to a must-win, and maybe 19 more? Or will Kathleen close out the year with a district title and an unblemished record?
“May the best man win,” concludes Castle.
“I don’t talk crap,” warns Strickland. “But there won’t be no more 20-year run against us.”