TARPON SPRINGS — This season has been everything the Tarpon Springs boys basketball program could have dreamed, with 10 school records, including its longest winning streak (11) and its most wins (25).
And the best part for the Spongers is it's not over yet.
Tarpon Springs (25-3), after mostly three decades of hardwood futility, has stormed into the playoffs as a district champion for the first time since 1978 and hosts Hernando (15-6) in tonight's Class 5A region quarterfinals.
"We expect it to be pretty crowded," Spongers coach Jerry Woodka said. "The city of Tarpon Springs deserves this."
If Tarpon Springs can win in front of a raucous crowd in its small, antiquated gymnasium, it will mark the first time the program has won a playoff game since 1947.
Initially, this turnaround did not seem possible, especially after last year's leading scorer, JT Aguilar, graduated. But the Spongers received a boost with the addition of Trai Halton, who transferred from New Smyrna Beach. Halton, a junior, played varsity the past two years and teamed with Scottie James to form a potentially dynamic scoring duo.
Still, it was not enough to predict a district championship.
"I thought we had a nice team, and I was hoping that we could be in the top four of the district and maybe have a chance to win in the semifinals and sneak into the playoffs" Woodka said.
The team played well during the summer at camps and in leagues, so much so that the expectations were raised.
"The team had practiced hard, and I heard how were good we were going to be," Halton said. "It didn't take long for me to know we had a good shot of winning our district."
To remind the players of what the ultimate goal was, Woodka attached a basketball to the locker room ceiling with two words: district champions.
The prospects of a title grew strong after the Spongers started 13-1 and emerged as the favorite in Class 5A, District 8. But it wasn't until Tarpon Springs beat host Nature Coast in a tournament in December that the players became convinced they could make the playoffs and do something once they got there.
"That whole tournament was huge for us," Woodka said. "We beat some quality teams like Jefferson and Brooks-DeBartolo which are in the playoffs. And Nature Coast is a team we could see again in the postseason.
"By that point, we were just getting more and more confidence, and now it's blossomed into something we never could have expected."
That tournament title helped the Spongers move into the state poll for the first time. They are currently ranked eighth in 5A.
James, who was named MVP in two tournaments this season, leads the team with 17.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Halton averages 17.1 points, as well as a team-leading four assists and four steals per game.
Both are juniors, and the team returns its top four leading scorers next year.
"We have a solid group of guys who love being around each other and play solid fundamental basketball," Woodka said.
This isn't the first time Tarpon Springs has made the playoffs in the past 36 years. The Spongers advanced as district runnerups in 1996, 1999 and 2011. Woodka was in his first stint as Tarpon Springs' coach when he led the team to the playoffs in 1999.
"That was a great team, but this season has been the most fun I've had as a coach," Woodka said. "Just to be around this team and watch it develop. And we should be there again next year, too."
For now, the Spongers are focused on this season, and extending it as long as possible.
"The fans have been there all season," Halton said. "We've had a lot of support from the community since the beginning of the season. We want to go out and play well for them and keep setting records."
Celebrating the end of droughts
Tarpon Springs is not the only Pinellas County team to end a significant playoff drought this season:
• Clearwater Central Catholic: The Marauders are in the postseason for the first time since 2001 after finishing as the runnerup in Class 3A, District 9. In the semifinals, CCC rallied from an 11-point deficit in the last two minutes to knock off Calvary Christian.
• Palm Harbor University: Thanks to a smaller district (Class 8A-7) and the addition of key players, the Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Joe Pigozzo has been the most consistent scorer and had 25 in the district final against St. Petersburg.