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TAMPA — The biggest game day of Stephanie Crawford’s 39-year-old life never really had a beginning. A restless Monday night just sort of segued into Tuesday.
“I didn’t really sleep,” Hillsborough High’s first-year boys basketball coach said.
Not even a two-hour midday massage, followed by a 45-minute bath, could ease the antsiness. That night in Hillsborough’s gym, Crawford would offer some final pregame directives, break the huddle, then break ground.
Before her mom and dad, Bucs receiver Michael Clayton and roughly two dozen other loved ones who traveled from as far as Valdosta, Ga., Crawford officially would embark on her tenure as the bay area’s first female coach of a major boys high school sport.
“I’m so ready I don’t know what to do,” she said roughly four hours before tip-off against Alonso.
The buildup had begun Nov. 2 when Crawford, a Pinellas County native and former collegiate guard who spent four years in the Air Force, called her first practice to order with all the subtlety of a caffeinated drill sergeant.
Her demand for detail and conformity haven’t dissipated.
Crawford required her players to dress up for school Tuesday. Shirts, ties, shoes and pants all bore solid black as the common denominator. As the first quarter of the preceding girls game ended, they entered the gym together, single file.
“Get that tie right, get your belts right,” Crawford ordered. “Presentation means everything.”
“She’s all about business,” forward Tarean Austin said.
And compassion, they had learned. Since that inaugural workout, the Terriers had been introduced to Crawford’s smile, soft side and even Clayton, for whom the coach works as a personal assistant. Invariably, she would start calling each kid “baby.”
For the pregame meal, she doted on her babies. In the teachers’ cafeteria, they ate baked chicken, thinly sliced steak, macaroni and cheese, a broccoli medley and rolls prepared from scratch by Town ’N’ Country caterer Lucia Adkins.
Her hard-nosed approach had long since been digested. “The first day you’re thinking, a woman coach, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” guard Oscar Henriquez said. “But she does.”
So they sat on black mats in the wrestling room and listened as this diminutive female with whom they had entrusted their season wrote the names of the starting five on a dry erase board and issued some final instructions. The key order, in capital letters: NO SECOND SHOTS.
“You guys have waited all summer long for this, I’ve waited my entire life for this,” Crawford said, “my entire life for this moment right here.”
The Terriers would make it worth the wait, eventually.
While complying with their coach’s demands to limit Alonso’s second-chance baskets, the Terriers initially struggled to handle the ball in the backcourt and failed to hit their first few shots.
Alonso, with only nine players, took a 6-0 lead. Less than two minutes into the game, Crawford’s black jacket was off. Two minutes after that, Hillsborough finally scored its first basket, a jump shot by Ravon Bullard.
It seemed to ease the tension. The Terriers would force turnovers in the backcourt, own Alonso on the boards, and exploit their depth advantage by substituting four and five at a time. A layup by sophomore Travis Lyons, Crawford’s adoptive son, capped a 10-0 run and gave Hillsborough an 18-12 lead.
By intermission, the Terriers led 29-17. “I need y’all to understand my jitters are gone,” Crawford told players as they devoured bananas, oranges and Gatorade at halftime. “I need yours to be gone.”
In the third quarter, play was delayed eight minutes when some overhead lights momentarily died. By then, the lights had all but gone out on Alonso. Employing a fullcourt press, the Terriers continued forcing one turnover after another. Final score: 60-39.
Bear-hugs followed the buzzer as friends and relatives poured from the bleachers. A handful of players posed for pictures with their undefeated coach. When she finally made it to the locker room, Crawford treated win No. 1 like No. 1,000.
She matter-of-factly reminded the team of the next day’s film review, told players to put their jerseys in a gray plastic bin, and had them form a circle — everyone holding hands — for a brief prayer she gave.
“We still have some work to do,” she told them. “You guys see that, right?”
“Right,” responded the Terriers in unison.
There’s plenty more groundwork to lay.
But the groundbreaking is complete.
“I’m now here,” she said. “I’ve arrived and I’ve got work to do.”