Springstead High Eagles basketball team a symbol of pride

Springstead High School fans react to the 75-60 Class 4A championship loss to the Cocoa High Tigers on Saturday at the Lakeland Center.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR | Special to the Times

Springstead High School fans react to the 75-60 Class 4A championship loss to the Cocoa High Tigers on Saturday at the Lakeland Center.

Maybe somebody will call to tell me this wasn't strictly true, but I swear the loudest cheer at the Lakeland Center on Saturday came when the announcer said the Springstead Eagles had placed second in the state basketball tournament.

Yes, second.

Because as nice as it would have been for the team to bring home the county's first Florida basketball championship, the "31'' on the front of its record seemed a lot more important than the "1'' tacked on at the end.

"We're proud of our boys,'' math teacher Regina Vanlow said over and over during the last seconds of the Eagles' 75-60 loss to Cocoa High in the Class 4A final.

"We're proud of our boys.''

As she should be. As we should be.

This team brought the school together, gave a little lift to the county when it needed it, provided a beacon of optimism in the avalanche of grim economic news.

Watching kids at the school file into the buses for the trip to Lakeland on Saturday, seeing the cars roll down Mariner Boulevard with "Go SHS'' soaped on their rear windows, you could almost think of Spring Hill as a cozy little burg rather than as a sprawling collection of transplants.

Even I started to feel that way, and I'm from Brooksville.

Like most everybody else outside this team's immediate circle, I came to appreciate it too late.

Three weeks ago, I noticed a newspaper photo of forward Isaiah Mason floating a good yard above the gym floor and a caption that said the team was still undefeated.

Hmm, I thought. Maybe these guys are worth watching.

The next Saturday, I laid down the best $6 I ever spent on a sporting event and watched from courtside as the Eagles dismantled Hudson in its second playoff game. The following week, my son and a handful of his friends saw them destroy Ocala West Port in the regional final.

They all hope to play high school basketball, and the Eagles put on a terrific display of how to do it right. They played with hustle, teamwork and a defense so suffocating my lasting impression of those games is of opposing teams' forwards waving their arms, futilely waiting for the ball to advance past half court.

"You know when somebody gets cut and bleeds in the water? They're like the sharks,'' said Marion Jones, a star player on a basketball team usually regarded as one of the county's best ever — the 1971-72 Hernando High squad that also included future NFL wide receiver Ricky Feacher.

His team was a little bigger up front, Jones said, but its guards would have had a hard time beating Springstead's press. Nearly a decade earlier, Hernando's team compiled a 25-2 record, said Ernie Chatman, who also coached the school's outstanding 1986-87 team.

Neither of them, he said, could have beaten these Eagles.

"I think they are probably the best team in Hernando County history,'' Chatman said.

That may not be saying much, which has been the knock on Springstead all year. The North Suncoast is no basketball hotbed, and the school's undefeated record seemed less impressive because of it.

Praiseworthy effort

But I look at this way. The school's run against the state's best teams was even more commendable because the team did it without the seasoning that would have come from facing tougher opponents.

While Springstead was beating up on Hernando and Pasco High, which it whipped by the stunningly lopsided score of 88-12, Cocoa played teams from Jacksonville, Orlando and even California.

That could explain why Cocoa maintained its composure in the second half and Springstead's stars seemed to lose theirs. Both Mason and point guard Dante Valentine fouled out with more than three minutes left in the game.

"It's Dante's job as field general to take the game over,'' his father, Anthony Valentine said after the game. "And today he just didn't do it.''

Valentine was slumped on the bench as his father spoke, and he and the rest of the team still looked downcast a couple of hours later, when they showed up at the Chili's in Lakeland as my family was leaving.

That didn't stop them from smiling and joking with my 11-year-old son, or graciously agreeing when he asked them to autograph his white T-shirt.

"They seemed like nice guys,'' he said when he climbed back in the car.

And even if this part of Florida doesn't have a great basketball tradition, I thought, this was not a bad way to start building one.

Springstead High Eagles basketball team a symbol of pride 03/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2009 7:16pm]

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