LAKELAND — Away from Hernando County, away from Spring Hill, away from their bizarre blue-rubber basketball court in their gym, Springstead High School had to hit the road Thursday to defend their undefeated record and convert the skeptics.
No problem. The Eagles simply turned the Lakeland Center into their home away from home.
In a convincing 61-49 semifinal victory over Pensacola High, the state's top-ranked Class 4A team, Springstead made an overdue claim for respect in front of a raucous crowd made up mostly of its own fans.
"I'm on the bandwagon now," said Robbie Odoms, uncle of Springstead star point guard Dante Valentine and a former girls basketball coach in Dunedin.
"Nobody had even heard of us,'' he said. "They were calling us Spring Hill instead of Springstead."
From the moment the doors opened to the George W. Jenkins Arena, it was clear that Springstead was going to make itself comfortable in unfamiliar environs. The Eagles' regular white home uniforms only confirmed the obvious.
School officials had ordered two charter buses crammed with students to make the trip. Many others apparently hitched a ride with classmates, friends or family members.
Springstead principal Susan Duval allowed students to attend the game only if they could provide a note from their parent or guardian, which had to be verified with a phone call. Absent that, school went on as scheduled back in Spring Hill.
"We're still focused on academics," said Duval, who watched the game from the end of the team's bench. "But the students were pretty charged up."
Evidently, many took her up on the offer.
"In my first class this morning, I was the only one there," said Glenn Clarke, an 18-year-old senior sitting in the third row of the arena with a large group of friends. "The school was almost empty."
Fans of Pensacola High, ranked No. 1 in 4A, had to travel nearly 500 miles from the western-most corner of the state, while Springstead's fans had to drive a little more than an hour to get to Lakeland.
The contingent of Springstead supporters — more than 500 or so — filled the sections behind both benches. From the start, almost any noise that was made in the gym was made on behalf of Springstead.
Upon first glance, the Eagles are an unimposing basketball team. Their tallest player is 6-foot-4 and no one is in danger of cracking 200 pounds. So far, no major college has expressed much interest in signing any of their players.
On the other bench, the Tigers' boasted major college prospects in 6-foot-7 forward Erin Straughn and 6-foot-6 Terrance Beasley. Straughn has committed to East Carolina and Beasley is headed to Florida International. The towering twosome came into the game averaging a combined 36 points, 27 rebounds and eight assists a game.
None of that mattered. Valentine played much bigger than his listed height of 5-10, scoring 24 points, grabbing six rebounds and scoring almost all of his points in the paint despite the best efforts of Straughn and Beasley.
Earlier that morning, en route to the game, Valentine's father had sent him a text message to remind him of the stakes. It proved to be unnecessary.
"Don't 4get, scouts will b n the audience 2day. Keep tr cool! Just do wht u do! We luv u son – mom $ dad," the message read.
Dante's response: "Ok."
"No matter who he's playing against, Dante is going to play hard and he's not going to be afraid," Anthony Valentine said. "That's just the way he plays. No matter what happens, he's going to get the respect he deserves."
Further up in the stands, Luis Lopez and wife, Milva, were rooting hard and loud for the Eagles. They mixed in some colorful suggestions for the referees, whom the couple felt were having an off-afternoon.
"They're not in the game. We've been getting hammered," said Luis Lopez, who works security at the school and occasionally officiates games in Hernando. "These kids have gotten no respect for what they have done. Nobody's done what they've done."
Lopez, a balding, stocky man with a voice that carries like a megaphone, said he taught the kids an early lesson in respecting your opponents during some lighthearted pickup games in the school's gym.
Lopez said he played college basketball at a small school in Kansas, a community college in New York and, later, in a professional league in Puerto Rico. He still owns a lethal jump shot.
"I taught them to not judge a book by its cover," Lopez said, grinning.
During a break in the final period, one of the more boisterous students shuffled onto the stairs and boogied to the hip hop over the loudspeakers. His pants started to droop a little below his rear end.
From the other aisle, Richard Howell called the boy over to him and whispered something into the teen's ear. The student dropped his head, tugged at his jeans.
Then went right back to dancing.
"Oh yeah, I told him to pull up his pants," said Howell, a Brooksville activist and former hoops coach. "We're all family here."
Indeed. A boisterous, loud, winning one.
And improbably enough, their school — with only one playoff victory in its history — needs only one more win to take home a state title.
"It was all that," said Duval, putting a hand over her mouth as if fighting to hold in the words. "And a bag of chips."
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.