Editor's Note: The following interview was recorded in March, between WNDB intern Ryan Friedman and Mainland girls' basketball coach Brandon Stewart.
Ryan Friedman: Congratulations on a successful stint so far with Mainland, and an even more successful championship season this year.
Coach Brandon Stewart: Thank you, thank you.
R: Okay coach first question: how much sleep did you get the night before the championship game?
C: That is a really good question and I honestly didn’t get any sleep, not in a bad way though. I was just up, watching film, studying. I’d fall asleep at 11:00 pm, wake up around 1:00 am, watch film again, fall asleep at 1:30 am, wake up at 2:00 am, fall asleep again, wake up and watch film until 2:35 am, and throughout that whole night, that’s how my night went. And you know, I’m happy, I’m happy I did that.
R: Sounds like a really good way to immerse yourself into a game plan.
C: For sure, for sure.
R: I’m sure you’re familiar with the legacy that American Heritage High School has in Girls Basketball over the last five seasons, winning 5 consecutive state championships. What were some of your thoughts going into that final game of the season?
C: I had studied that, I had studied the last five games, championship games that they had been in, most of them have almost been blowouts honestly, and the championship game they were in two years ago, I think it was against Palm Bay High School, I think they won by 5 or 6. I just studied their roster from those years, I studied everything about them, and for me, I knew that at that moment those last years didn’t matter, what mattered was the game that they had to play against us that next day and it was gonna come down to 32 minutes and can we do what we need to do, with the team they have right now.
And for me, I went into the game so confident, because I knew what we had. I spoke to my girls about, uh, you know, having a certain journey and understanding that journey and I told them that my job was to get them to the Final Four, and I truly believe that if I got my girls to the Final Four, they would show out and that’s exactly how I explained it to them. I’m happy they did that, they went and we accomplished something amazing, we accomplished something that won’t go anywhere, we accomplished [something] in a historic time for Mainland High School Girls Basketball, and I’m excited to have been a part of that.
So, all of those thoughts, is what was going through my head when we knew we had to play against American Heritage, when it seemed like to everybody else that it was this ‘David and Goliath’ and we were David, because they had been here before, and a lot of my girls had never even played in that arena, so ‘oh it may be different for us shooting, it may be different because the court seems bigger, it may be different’. All of those things to me were just distractions to make my girls think that we’re going to be doing something that’s not basketball.
And I would tell my girls, we’re not going out there to play a different sport, we’re going out there to play the sport we’ve been playing all year and it’s against a team that is pretty good, but guess what, we’re pretty good too. And we just walked in there with that type of confidence and you know we got the job done.
R: At the end of the day, it’s just another team.
C: For sure.
R: So let’s talk about that game a little bit. You were leading by 17 points with three minutes left in the game. I think I read somewhere you had two important players foul out?
C: It was actually 3. Yashaiya Yisrael fouled out first, then Tia Dobson fouled out second, and then Jordan Boddie fouled out third. Those are all starters, they had been playing the whole game. So that’s what happened during that time frame.
R: Okay, so you had even less starters on the floor, and American Heritage was kinda playing that fouling game where they force you to put up some free throws and then they get another possession. So, the game ended in your favor obviously, but how would you rate your team morale through what seemed like a rollercoaster of a game?
C: I think that they go off my temperament, I think they look at me a lot and most times, I’m always giving them a type of demeanor that is unbothered. We stay focused, We don’t get distracted, we’re here to finish a job, and that’s what we’re gonna do. And I think that, uh, Them looking at me and trying to create a mirror of themselves to what I’m doing, I think we stayed focused on what the job was even - I know that I said something in the press conference, Tia [Dobson] and Jordan Boddie, they were both frustrated after they fouled out, but somehow, someway, they dug inside and became fifth and sixth coaches on the bench for some of those young girls, that had to get in the game and close the game out, because no matter who was on the court, when we win this game, it’ll be that Mainland Girls Basketball that won this game, it’s not gonna be one player, or two players, it’s going to be about the whole team.
So, me seeing them do that, was amazing to me, they grew before my eyes just in that moment because at the age of, you know, 16, 17, 18, you foul out of a State game, you can get in your head about that and you can go pout on the bench, but they didn’t do that and that speaks a lot about them. They continue to fight with their voice, they continue to talk, they continue to encourage and throughout that, they’ll never know how that encouragement that they gave us the energy to still pull that win out. Imagine if they came to the bench and sat there with their heads down. And now some of the players on the court may see them do that now the whole morale goes down. So to answer the question concretely, I think our morale stayed high, because we always stayed focused and didn’t get distracted by anything and at that moment, our girls fouling out, was only a distraction for us to stop focusing on the main goal that we went to Lakeland for, and that was to win a championship.
R: Yeah exactly, it just seemed like you guys knew how to handle almost everything that was coming your guys’ way.
C: For sure, and we had been through a lot this year. A lot of the games that we played, we’ve seen a lot, we’ve been down before, we’ve been down by 13 in the first quarter, we’ve been down 12 in the first half, and you know we just kept fighting, and I think I told them at halftime, the game is still not over, even though we were up a certain amount, I think at halftime we were up by 5, and we go into the third quarter and at the end of the third, we’re up by 20. Then we end the game and only win by one. So as you stated before Ryan, it was definitely a rollercoaster of emotions, but I’m just happy that my girls got it done. When people ask me how I feel, I tell them I’m just happy for the girls because they all have so many stories that people would never know and I like to say now, that they are forever winners, because no one will be able to take the State Championship away from them.
R: Exactly, just a few weeks ago when I heard about you guys winning the championship, I was really inspired. I come from an area in Maryland where sports aren’t really a huge thing, you know state championships are almost unheard of at my school, so just the fact that a school near me, was able to clinch a first time in school history state championship for a certain sport, it’s really inspirational for me at least.
C: For sure.
R: I know you said you guys we’re going through a lot during the season. You guys started 2-2, and you know like I said, I’m not totally familiar with all these sports and stuff so the whole tournament schedule didn’t make sense to me, but your second loss came during a Thanksgiving Tournament versus Oakleaf. Did you say something to your team that sparked your eventual 8-game win streak? Or did the game plan finally click and come together?
C: I’ll say this Ryan, and I mean this so humbly…to me, I told them, and it’s funny now that the season is over and this is the first time I’m bringing this up again, but I told them that I was going to be mad that we lost to Oakleaf for the rest of the season. And I only say that because in the first quarter, I think it was maybe 19-2 against Oakleaf and we were playing really well. And honestly, ironically, foul trouble actually hurt us in the Oakleaf game as well and we had to actually sit some of our players down, and they ended up coming back and we ended up losing that game by one point. So if you can think about my mindset Ryan, in that state championship game, when I run into this issue again, where we are in foul trouble, and this is why I didn’t take anybody out in that game, and I just knew I wanted to leave it all on the floor.
And I remembered that Oakleaf game and I know you’re asking if I said something to my girls about it, but it helped me be more brave. I remembered that Oakleaf game where I subbed some of my girls out and we kinda lost our lead in that sub, so after that game, I think that was the main thing that I told my girls, that Oakleaf, that I was gonna be mad at that loss for the rest of the season and if we ever - and the next game, Ryan, we ended up going up by a lot again in the first quarter and I remember myself calling a timeout and I said, “This team will not come back like the Oakleaf game, so I think us losing that game was more of a lesson than it was a loss for us.
R: I completely understand that, and sometimes that’s exactly what you guys need: for a team, you don’t want to go 17-0, straight into the playoffs thinking you’re all this. You want to have time at the bottom so you know what you’re experiencing at the top.
R: Your team won two games versus out-of-state teams, dropped the next versus Bishop-Kenny, and forfeited the next two, and then you dropped two more. Do you mind speaking on the incident in the University-Mainland game that caused the suspensions and forfeitures?
C: No, I don’t mind. This is what I’ll say: none of our girls are fighters or negative or want to be involved in anything like that on a day to day basis. I think that this is a short time period of a quick, impulsive decision being made in an idea of protection and trying to be a team and those things. Immediately remorseful, automatically wishing that those things didn’t happen, and it was a lesson that was learned, I think that that too, is also gonna be something that almost in comparison to the Oakleaf game lesson, something that our girls learned will from, you can’t be impulsive in all situations.
You know, I still throughout the season, I still talk to the girls that were suspended, and of course they weren’t into everything that we were doing as a team anymore, it did cause even more darkness in a way, but as I stated in one of my articles that we continued to always see the light and I think that getting into that incident at that University game, it was very unpredictable for me, I never even thought I would be in that position.
The score of that game I think was 39-7, or something like that, so I didn’t even think something like that would even happen in that environment, but it did. And that too, was something else that I understood that we had to continue to stay focused on what the goal was and the goal was to get to Lakeland and win a State Championship.
So, even though we had lost players, my job as the coach was to continue to coach the girls that were on the court, continue to coach the girls that were eligible to be playing and continue to move from there. Some of our girls that were not able to finish the season, I’m still gonna help them get into college, of course, they’re off those suspensions now, so we’ll be getting back into the gym soon, everything is gonna go back to the regular plan. But I just want to say that it was an unfortunate situation, once again it’s something that I don’t necessarily look at as a loss, I look at it as a lesson.
I like to say that things don’t happen to you, they happen for you, so I think that it just helps our girls to think more and be more in control of their emotions, and not do things impulsively, and I think that they learn from it, I’m excited to say that, I’m happy to say they learned from it. It’s not something they would do again if they were in that position.
R: It seems like your team is learning a lot of lessons, seems like a storybook ending; you guys have to win the championship game at the end, and you did!
C: For sure.
R: So those two games after the forfeitures…do you feel that they were prepared to step into the big shoes with the season at stake?
C: Even if they weren’t prepared, we were going to prepare them. But they were prepared, because even when we practice, we practice Varsity and JV together, so if I thought they were not prepared, I probably wouldn’t have brought them up to Varsity, because I wouldn’t want to even put them in that position. I’m never going to set you up for failure, I’m always going to tell the truth, and I think that the girls that were able to step up and come to varsity, and they helped us. These girls like Neisha [Ronneisha Thomas] and Rayn [Shilah-Rayn Lord], they didn’t come from JV and not help, they actually played big minutes. Shilah-Rayn actually hit a three while we were down 6 in the State Championship game.
I had to call a timeout because American Heritage was going on a run and I had to call a timeout, and Shilah-Rayn actually went back out to hit a three and stop the run. Neisha Thomas, was the freshman that was on the court. She actually made the free-throws to seal the game. So these are not young ladies that came into the court and were just filling space, they helped us get these victories, and I’ll be forever proud of them for that.
R: Can you think of any other adversity that your team faced over the course of the season?
C: I think just chemistry. I think that with any team, of course we had new players, we had players in different roles, just really figuring each other out, understanding how to play with each other, what I do well, what I don’t do well. I just need to stick into that lane and I think that once we started to do that, is when we really started to get the ball rolling. Once we started to be comfortable with who we were on the team, things started to move the right direction. Even me as the coach, had to understand if a certain player has the ball in a certain position or getting trapped, I may need to call a timeout. But if another player has the ball in a certain position getting trapped, I may not need to call a timeout.
Certain things like that, so as their coach, I also had to- it took me time to learn and see, pay attention to who plays well with who, pay attention to who compliments who. All of that coming together in one season to pull off a State Championship is something that’s really special, and I tell my girls, they probably don’t understand, that we don’t even know how big it even is, to be the first team ever in Mainland Girls Basketball history to make it to the Final Four, and cap it off to come home with the Championship. So I think that the chemistry of anything is important, and going through those
phases of getting the girls to know each other, getting the girls to trust each other, we can say that was a little of adversity.
R: What are you doing to plan for next season? Are you thinking about it now?
C: Absolutely, I’m already thinking about next season. I’ve started scheduling, getting our schedule down pat, talking about who we’re going to be playing against, who we’re probably not gonna play against again, what part of the season can we space games out, or should we move games closer. Those things are kind of the conversations I’m having with myself and one of my coaches, just to kinda get things going, because the reality is, once you win a championship, it’s not the end of the world, you know what I mean? It’s a fun celebration but it’s not the end of the world because it’s time to face a new year, a new year that may bring different adversities, a new year that may bring different stories, a new year that may bring different players, a new year that may bring different teams, so now it’s time to sit back down at the table and start getting things together again, because the reality is if you did it once, you can do it again, and that’s what we’re gonna try and do, we’re gonna try to do the same thing again.
And now, I used to tell my girls, I would ask them at the beginning of the year, ‘what do you have to do to win State?’ They would give me all these answers, they would say, ‘oh, you have to play hard, you have to be tough, you have to have chemistry,’ and I would tell them, ‘who in here has won State before?’ and everybody’s hands will go down and I would ask, ‘So, how do we really know what it takes to win State?’ and of course everything will go quiet. So, now this year, I’m honestly going to start my year with that same question, ‘what does it take to win State?’ and I think our answers would be different, Ryan, because now we actually do know what it takes to win State, and the reality is, it’s not necessarily going to be about any one thing, it’s about the whole journey that it takes for you to get there and you being able to persevere and get through everything that’s happening and then eventually you find yourself on mountaintop, on top of the mountain, and now you’re doing what you thought you could do. So, we’re definitely planning for next year, we’re definitely excited about next year, and just looking forward to it.
R: I would be too. I think you guys have great morale, how much roster turnover do you think you’re going to have?
C: We lost four seniors, so a lot of the girls that we’re on the court in Lakeland will be coming back, so I’m excited about that. I think the reality is every season, kinda as I stated before, every season is different. So from day to day, or week to week or month to month, you never know exactly what your roster is gonna look like. But, we do know that we have a system that works and now that we’ve done it, we know that it’s proven. So no matter what our roster may look like next year, we do know what we’re gonna do, we know what we want to do. We know that the girls that we lost, of course we’re gonna miss all four of them, because they all had something to do with the games that we won throughout the season and postseason, and in Lakeland. So, just moving forward now we just want to focus on continuing to be consistent with what we do as a team and I think we’re gonna do a really good job at that.
R: One of the last questions I have, I have a few more for you, you guys won seven consecutive neutral-site games including the Girls 5A State Title, what does it mean to you to bring home the first Girls Basketball State Title in school history?
C: It’s a legacy to me, It’s just a legacy that is, I’m humbled, I am a God fearing man so I know that it couldn’t happen without God and even with my own story of playing basketball in college, I was a walk-on at Bethune-Cookman University, and doing the things that I had to do to become a winner, just a winner in my own right. To touch the lives of so many people by winning the State Championship, to change the lives of these girls, and they’ll forever be winners. I tell them all the time, when they have kids, nieces or nephews, they’ll always be able to tell their family members that they were a State Champion in 2023.
That’s something that I hold near and dear to me and that’s something that I went through so much sacrifice for and - I mean I quit my job to become to Head Coach at Mainland, I was working at Bethune-Cookman as a mentor and I literally quit my job to be the Head Basketball Coach at Mainland because it wouldn’t work out because of the times, so the sacrifice that I put in, Ryan, I can’t put into words how much it means to me to be a State Champion because I do now that sacrifice matters, now I know that perseverance matters.
I told the girls all year, we are focused on the North Star. And that North Star to us was basically no matter what happened, we knew where we were going, and the whole time, I’m just happy to say I led the girls the right way and it’s a good feeling to be able to keep your word at something that seems so unattainable and then go attain it and just change so many lives is so important to me. So, that’s what I’ll say, that’s what it means to me, I’m just happy that I had a chance to be a part of the journey of all of these people’s lives and create winners of the next generation.
R: Yeah. Just know man, all the girls on the team are going to tell their families for generations and generations about how they won a State Championship at the hands of Coach Stewart. And it’ll be something that I always dream of, I don’t know if I’ll quite get to that type of status, but I’ll never quit that dream, I’m still in college but I look up to you.
C: I really appreciate that.
R: You talk about all of the adversity that you’ve gone through, and the adversity that your team went through, and when I was doing my research a little while ago, I saw that you are basically the head of two organizations, Daily Mirrors and Revealed Basketball. Can you kinda expand on those because to me, they seem like adversity challengers.
C: 100%. Daily Mirrors is 100% an adversity challenger…I’m really happy you asked about Daily Mirrors, I’m actually getting it back off the ground right now with some apparel and positive stories about success. Daily Mirrors was created for the very reason and whole situation that we are in right now. The idea of Daily Mirrors is to never blame others for the situations that you’re in, only look in the mirror and understand that you, yourself, can control things that are in your control, and of course there are some things that are out of our control, but the idea, things don’t happen to us, they happen for us. That is what Daily Mirrors is about.
So, the adversity that we went through, whether it seems like the worst adversity ever, it’s something that happens for you so you can see something in your own life and make certain changes in your own life so that you can be headed in the right direction. But Daily Mirrors is my first business baby, in a way, Daily Mirrors is the first thing I started pushing and speaking positivity to everybody. I used to host, like, open mic nights. I used to create escape rooms for the mental, I used to go out to the beach and do free beach workouts with Daily Mirrors. I used to go speak, I’ve spoken in front of about 150 kids for Daily Mirrors. Daily Mirrors is something that I hold near and dear to me, I’m really happy you asked about Daily Mirrors, thank you for asking that.
Revealed Basketball is basically my training business, but I’ve turned Revealed Basketball into Training Champs. I literally call my training business Training Champs, and the idea is ironically not necessarily about winning the State Championship, but it’s about being a champion within yourself. Understanding that, being comfortable with who you are, don’t compare yourself to anybody else and you can be a champion in your own right if you just do the things you do well the best. That’s what Daily Mirrors and Revealed Basketball which is now Training Champs, that’s what those two businesses are about.
R: When I played basketball in high school, I almost wish you were my basketball coach, because you could have changed so many things in my life. It sounds great, and I congratulate you for what you are making Daily Mirrors and Training Champs into. Lastly, before I let you go, I stumbled upon a GoFundMe page for your team, would you like to plug that a little bit?
C: Yes! We have a GoFundMe, it is still up and running, it is still growing. I want to give a really big special thanks to everyone that has been giving. I don’t know if you’ve actually looked at the GoFundMe, Kyrie Irving actually donated $11,000, and we were really excited about that. People asked me, ‘how did he know about it?’ I said I have no idea but I know we are blessed, we are favored, and I’m happy we were a program that he decided to help out like that, and I’m really excited for next year because I’m gonna make sure our girls really feel like champions again. We’re gonna make sure we are dressed nice, make sure we are uniform, we’re really just gonna use this money to take our program to the next level. Image is a lot, you look good, you feel good, you play good, I really do believe in that and I think that everything is possible, I think you just got to continue to put your mind to it, continue to work, you reap what you sow, continue to plant seeds in people’s lives, continue to water, and I think that all of them grow and sometimes everything grows at the same time and I believe that’s what’s happening for Mainland girls’ basketball team right now.
R: That’s truly amazing, I don’t know his information but maybe you should send him a thank you card to Kyrie Irving.
C: For sure, I’ve been trying to get in touch with him for a while now, of course it’s hard to. I wrote him a couple of emails, I wrote him a couple of notes on GoFundMe, but I’m definitely gonna try to make sure he understands we really appreciate that because it’s really special and yeah, we’re really humbled by that, we appreciate it.
R: Well Coach Stewart, is there anything else you’d like to [speak on]?
C: I just want to say thank you to everybody. I want to say thank you to Daytona, the administration at Mainland High School for allowing me to be a coach. I want to say thank you to our girls, I want to say thank you to our parents, thank you to my fiancé. I overwhelm myself with basketball, so I’m happy to see it follow through, and I want to give a shoutout to Pastor Evans, he’s a mentor of mine. And there’s so many people in the background that have helped me so much, it’s not just me. I talk to a lot of people, I talk about how to be better, I talk about how to make Mainland Girls Basketball a better program, and I’m happy to be the one doing it, but there’s so much going on behind the scenes and
I’ve been saying, the whole postseason that God did. The reason I’ve been saying that is because no matter what happens, no matter who may think you can’t do something, no matter how the situation may look, there’s always a way to do it, if you continue to keep your head straight, if you continue to focus on what you’re supposed to be focused on and if you don’t get distracted. Sometimes it’s hard to understand distractions, sometimes it’s hard to see a distraction because sometimes, we are our own distraction. Just to be able to stay focused and complete that goal is something that feels special and we’re never going to forget it.
If I missed anybody out, I apologize, don’t be mad at me, you know you helped me. Thank you to everybody. I’m just so appreciative, I’m so humbled by all of this, and we’re just trying to get into the same position next year.