LAKELAND — March Madness qualified as an excused absence Thursday.
In essence, Tampa Prep students were allowed to ditch their history classes to watch history transpire. So at roughly 8 a.m., more than 400 kids, faculty and staff boarded 11 buses at the downtown private school and headed east for the state high school boys basketball tournament.
As always, Joe Fenlon drove the team bus, an 18-seat Blue Bird that looks as if it had been chartered from Hickory.
“I’m Ralph Kramden,” he said.
Nah, ol’ Ralph’s hard luck paled next to the Terrapins’ 50-year-old coach. Seven previous times since 1997, he had literally driven his team to the final four in Lakeland. All seven times, the only sound home was the bus’ rattling engine.
On the waxed wood floor of the Lakeland Center, Florida’s 8,200-seat prep hoops mecca, cruelty had gotten creative on Fenlon. Twice at the final four, the Terps had lost in overtime.
In a 2009 semifinal, with the score tied in overtime, one of his players was whistled for a foul with 0.7 seconds to play. Naturally, the foulee sank both free throws. One began to wonder if Fenlon would trade in his 616 career wins — amassed over 29 seasons — for one state medal.
“This is my 29th season, and for 28 previous seasons, I walked out of a locker room disappointed,” Fenlon said. “Disappointed for a loss, not for the way we played.”
Basketball lifers, however, are generally unwavered when betrayed by the law of averages. Former University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith needed seven final four trips before winning a national title. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski needed five.
Similarly, Fenlon wouldn’t allow fate to throw him under his own bus. So with equal parts determination and defiance, he made another Polk County pilgrimage Thursday.
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Joseph Fenlon never intended to plant roots in Tampa. At the behest of his older brother, then the Berkeley Prep coach, he applied for and won the Terrapins coaching job fresh out of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse at age 21.
He deemed it a mere rail on the fast track to college glory.
“I thought I was going to replace Digger Phelps at Notre Dame,” he said.
Digger couldn’t retire soon enough. Fenlon inherited a one-win Terrapins team, practicing at a nearby outdoor court because the school didn’t yet have its own gym. When he won his debut, against now-defunct St. Petersburg Lutheran, he popped a bottle of Taylor champagne and downed it.
Then he had to swallow reality.
He married Cindy, his college sweetheart. Daughter Mychael came along in 1988, followed by son Conner two years later. Next thing he knew, Fenlon was Tampa Prep’s middle school principal and the longest-tenured boys basketball coach in Hillsborough County.
• • •
If fate wasn’t already smiling on Fenlon and his 30-1 team when it reached Lakeland before 9 a.m. Thursday, it was at least flashing a bicuspid or two. He had won his first final four overtime contest, against Jacksonville Providence, on Tuesday in the Class 3A semifinals.
Two days before, Conner — a seldom-used Siena College senior who never had converted a field goal in a collegiate game — drained a 3-pointer 52 seconds into a win against Canisius.
Only Weston’s Sagemont School, a defending state champ, stood between Fenlon and nirvana. Tampa Prep built a 10-point lead in the first quarter, only to watch the Lions rally.
With two minutes to play in the game, the Terps still led by only two. Then, slender sophomore backup Marshall Holmes drained a 3-point shot from the left corner with 1:46 to go. Seconds later, Holmes stepped in a Sagemont passing lane, stole the ball, and sped away for a dunk.
When sophomore Josh Heath sank a free throw with 32 ticks to go, Tampa Prep led 58-50, and Fenlon allowed himself to exhale. Heath’s dad, USF coach Stan Heath, beamed directly behind the Terrapins’ bench.
“I just wanted the clock to end,” Fenlon said.
It ended with that same score. Moments later, he was hugging Mychael and Cindy, bedecked in black and white Terrapins jerseys, respectively.
“If I never win another game, I will be able to say that I’ve won a state championship, and that’s unbelievable,” Fenlon said. “And I think it will get more unbelievable as the minutes and hours pass.”
When the initial hugs and hand slaps subsided, Fenlon formally removed the albatross from his neck and replaced it with something more shimmering. As he stepped down from the midcourt medal stand, he pumped his right fist.
Assistants Augie Montejo and Cory Kosiba, who have been with Fenlon for all eight final fours, got their gold medals, too. So did longtime scorekeeper Donna Fowler, whose 87-year-old mom, Pat, wouldn’t think of missing a Terps game.
“I’m just really happy for them, and I wished it could’ve happened when Conner was playing,” Cindy said.
Minutes later, Fenlon stepped outside, beneath a noonday Polk County sun. His dark jacket, and the demons of disappointments past, were shed. As he reached the bus, he handed the state title trophy to Montejo.
After momentarily fiddling with a set of keys, he unlocked the door.
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com