LAKELAND — The clock was exhausted and Chris Blackwell awaited the inevitable, standing with his arms folded at the St. Petersburg bench. He was about to become the first coach to take the Green Devils boys basketball program to the state final four since James King in 1972.
As victory over Stuart Martin County approached, Blackwell smiled, he cried, he shook his head slightly in wonder and, finally, held his hands above his head like a referee signaling touchdown.
“It was such an unbelievable moment,” Blackwell said.
On Friday, St. Petersburg will face Pompano Beach Ely in the Class 7A state semifinals at 4 p.m. at the Lakeland Center.
The moment that helped the Green Devils get there culminated an offseason of anguish for Blackwell. A former standout and assistant at Lakewood, he came to St. Petersburg in 2002 to start to a career as a head coach. Accustomed to winning, he took some lumps before turning the Green Devils into a consistent contender.
Blackwell’s career was at a crossroads when Dan Wright, his former coach at Lakewood, retired this offseason after 35 seasons and a county-record 684 wins.
The idea of going back to his alma mater to replace his mentor intrigued Blackwell.
“There was a rush there, and the thought entered my mind of what it would be like to go back there,” Blackwell said. “But I had to look at the bigger picture, and there was tremendous upside here at St. Pete.”
In the end, Blackwell didn’t even apply at Lakewood.
“I’m very happy with my decision,” he said.
After a few bumps this season, the Green Devils came together this past month to survive several close contests to get to the final four.
In the postseason, Blackwell left nothing to chance. This past month, he sought advice from his mentor.
“I called Coach Wright,” Blackwell said. “I figured it was a fine time to do it. I trusted his experience at this time of year. It was a chance to reflect back at some of the times he’s been in these situations before and just be more prepared.”
Wright was more than happy to oblige.
“We just had a couple of conversations on ideals,” Wright said. “Basically, Chris was just wanting to make sure he was covering all his bases and having the right guys in at the right time.”
All the preparation, all the conversations, paid off last week when St. Petersburg (23-8) survived another last-minute thriller to win 77-76 in the Class 7A region final.
The victory ritual called for Blackwell to climb a ladder and snip a strand of the net, which he ended up wearing like a triumphant necklace.
“It was such a feeling,” Blackwell said. “We were able to overcome so much and get that monkey off our back and reach the final four. The joy of seeing the look on so many of the players’ and everyone’s faces was tremendous. I saw Coach Wright and I could the smile on his face.”