LAKELAND — As she walked out of the postgame media room Thursday night, a gold medal around her neck, Tampa Catholic coach Nancy Kroll looked to the sky.
“I know my guardian angel was watching out for us today,” Kroll said.
With a 43-42 win over Orlando Bishop Moore in the Class 3A final, Kroll’s Crusaders become the first Hillsborough County team to win a state girls basketball title since Academy of the Holy Names in 1996.
That Holy Names team (which also won at the Lakeland Center) was coached by Craig Keeler, Kroll’s late husband, one of the area’s most successful hoops coaches in the 1990s. He coached the Jaguars to four state tournament appearances in the decade.
Keeler died of a heart attack in 1999.
For years, the two were a couple rooted in basketball. She was one of his assistants at Holy Names before moving to Hillsborough Community College.
In 1996, on the night Keeler won the last Hillsborough County state title, Kroll was out of town while coaching at HCC. She was pregnant with their son, Danny, now 13, who was on the bench for Thursday’s game.
“That team only had two losses, too,” Kroll said. “They were 35-2. I still remember. They lost to Boca Ciega and Clearwater.”
Kroll, 46, went on to coach at Division III Fairleigh Dickinson (N.J.), and Keeler left Holy Names in ’98 to be with her.
She has won at every level, earning two state tournaments at HCC and six state titles in AAU ball. But Thursday, she could easily say it was the highlight of a 22-year career.
“This is the pinnacle,” she said, clutching the medal.
Kroll has since remarried. Her husband, Mike Kroll, is a former Tampa Catholic basketball and baseball standout, and stepdaughter Micah is the Crusaders’ starting shooting guard.
In five years she built the Crusaders into a state champion, stressing defense and a frenetic style.
They won the Keeler way.
“I think Craig would be very proud,” she said.