Best of the best: Winter Haven girls basketball team heads for NYC tournament

- When the equipment bags are packed, yellow hard hats will travel with the Winter Haven girls basketball team this weekend. 

"This is a blue-collar town," said head coach Johnnie Lawson. "I think we've taken on that persona." 

"This is a huge part of what we do," he continued.

The message is this: The girls can't be successful without one another. Together, they've won three straight state championships. Now, it's time for the Big Apple. 

The team will play in the GEICO High School Basketball Nationals, a tournament that only the country's best get invited to. 

"Even after state, we didn't know if we were going to get accepted or not," said senior forward Tyia Singleton. "We kept practicing like we were going to get accepted. When we finally found out, it was an awesome feeling." 

It's a single-elimination, four-team tournament. All four are top-20 teams in the nation: The best of the best in high school basketball. 

"It validates the program now," said Lawson. "A lot of people say, 'Well, you're already good!' But I didn't want to just be good."

"Nobody knows what Winter Haven can really bring," said Singleton. "I don't think everybody knows what we really have and the talent we have. Going to nationals, we can finally prove this is Winter Haven. This is what everybody's been missing. I'm glad we get this opportunity to do this." 

For years, Coach Lawson had hoped that they'd one day get there. Winter Haven went 32-1 this season, playing nationally-ranked opponents and state champions before venturing into district play. 

"I did not expect for them to be here," he said. "I'm telling you. I set it up for us to lose, and they didn't." 

With their hearts and minds, the girls put on those hard hats and got to work all season long. Now, they could add a national championship to the school's already very decorated trophy case.

The Winter Haven girls basketball team will begin play in the tournament Friday. It will be broadcast on ESPNU at 11 a.m. 

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