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TARPON SPRINGS — This part of the county, typically dominated by football, does not have much experience filling basketball gymnasiums and storming the court in celebration.
Tarpon Springs has provided an education this season.
Once a laughingstock then an upstart, the Spongers are suddenly in the postseason conversation after securing the runnerup spot in Class 5A, District 11 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Tonight, Tarpon Springs (19-8) travels to play Gibbs (20-7) in the region quarterfinals.
“It’s a big deal at the school,” Spongers coach James Margarella said. “We’ve had support from the community before. But now people are starting to notice us more.”
Three home games this season sold out. The biggest win came against county nemesis Clearwater last month, which prompted fans to pour out of the bleachers. For nearly a half-hour the court was awash in maroon-clad revelers.
Tarpon Springs’ turnaround can be attributed in large part to a pair of preeminent seniors, C.J. Mackey and C.J. Bargman.
Mackey, a forward, was named MVP of the Indian Rocks Christian tournament in December. Bargman, a guard, became the school’s all-time leading scorer during the district tournament last week. Both are 6-foot-5 and give the Spongers a height advantage over most teams in the county.
They also have given people in this tight-knit city a reason to talk about basketball.
“People are starting to notice more around the community,” Mackey said. “I was at Walmart the other day and someone came up to me and said, ‘Good game.’ I didn’t even know him.”
It wasn’t always this way. Two weeks ago, Bargman was watching a highlight video from his freshman season and noticed the scarce home crowd.
“I looked in the background and there were maybe 20 people in the stands,” Bargman said. “One guy had a paper bag over his head with a smiley face written on it.
“That’s how bad it used to be. But we’ve changed a lot the last few years. We should have been in the playoffs last year, but we had a meltdown. This year we’ve made it and we don’t want to leave.”
Though the Spongers are making their first postseason appearance in more than a decade, they do not have a just-happy-to-be-here mentality.
“We want to make it to states, that’s our motivation,” Bargman said. “I have the words ‘state champs’ on the background of my computer. That’s my password, too.”
To take the first step toward a trip to the state final four, Tarpon Springs will have to get past a Gladiators team that won its second straight district title and has beaten the Spongers twice this season.
“We’re confident,” Mackey said. “We just have to stay disciplined and not have too many turnovers.”