DADE CITY — Pasco coach Troy Moore was coming off a 3-20 inaugural season when he looked at a promising but unproven roster in front of him.
He saw speed and athleticism and potential — but not a group of basketball players.
“Because (you) can run really fast doesn’t make you a good ball player,” Moore said. “Can you catch? Can you pivot? Can you triple threat?”
The Pirates (23-1) can now.
In four seasons, Moore has lifted Pasco from a North Suncoast doormat into a Class 5A region finalist. A win at home tonight against St. Johns Bartram Trail would give the program its first trip to state.
But before Moore could teach his natural athletes to become ball players, he had to make the transformation himself.
He started playing sports as a youngster in Fort Lauderdale, first in middle school then at Dillard. Football came easily. Basketball required more preparation and study.
“It was more of a tactical thing,” Moore said.
But Moore fell in love with the strategies, which eventually led him into coaching. He dissects old NBA games on TV at night, listening to the language and watching the simple plays executed flawlessly. The basketball pupil summed up tonight’s opponent as a hybrid of the 1950s Indiana picket-fence style infused with elements of Kentucky’s system.
Moore’s enthusiasm spread to his team, and his constant encouragement kept the Pirates going in the offseasons. More players began coming to shootarounds. Their skills improved. They started to become basketball players.
“We recognize where we were freshman year and what we can do now,” junior guard Brianca Roberts said.
Before Roberts, Allahon Marbra, Ashley Webster and the rest of Pasco’s star junior class arrived, the Pirates had three consecutive losing seasons. Against Gulf in 2009, Pasco lost 63-8.
The Pirates dropped all four of their contests to the Buccaneers last year but broke through this winter with a 53-45 win in Tuesday’s region semifinal.
“We’ve seen what can be done,” Marbra said. “We wanted that.”
The Pirates have done it with defense, allowing more than 40 points in only five games this season.
And they have done it with a handful of key playmakers on offense. Roberts (16.9 points per game) and Marbra (15.7) are two of Pasco County’s top scorers, while Webster and Tranisha Harmon have performed well in the post.
The Pirates showed flashes of their potential last season with a playoff win over Nature Coast. But an extra year of training and the confidence of a near-perfect season have taken Moore’s bunch to the brink of program history.
“The girls feel like they deserve to be here, and they play like that …” Moore said. “We feel like we should be part of this group, this elite eight.”
And, after tonight, maybe a part of the school’s first final four.
Academy at the Lakes (24-2) at Winter Garden Foundation Academy (8-14)
Winner gets: Hollywood Sheridan Hills Christian/Miami Westwood Christian in Tuesday’s state semifinal
Skinny: The Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the state and ranked third in 2A. AATL is coming off of a convincing 49-point win over a previously unbeaten Winter Haven All Saints’ Academy team ranked fourth in the state. Senior post Tatiana Manuel starred in that region semifinal, tallying 22 points, 10 boards and five blocks. Foundation Academy will also try to contain standout scorer Andrea Mauger (18.3 points per game) and break an AATL defense that has allowed only 50 points this postseason. The Lions are searching for their first trip to Lakeland in their fifth trip to the playoffs, while a victory would vault the Wildcats back to state for the second consecutive season. “It’s right in front of us,” Mauger said. “We’ve just got to grab it now.”