TAMPA — As Tampa Catholic junior Colette Eule celebrated the Crusaders' first trip to the girls basketball state final four with bottles of sparkling grape juice and chocolate chip cookies Saturday night, she thought back to one of the first days of practice.
Coach Nancy Kroll handed out questionnaires. Each player wrote down the goal for the season. Of course, they all dreamed big.
"In the back of our heads, everybody was saying, 'Win a state championship,' but realistically I didn't know we were capable of this," said Eule, the Crusaders' leading scorer.
But now Tampa Catholic, a team that didn't make it out of districts last season, advances to the Class 3A state semifinals after a 57-44 win over Melbourne Central Catholic on Saturday.
"This is so overwhelming," junior center Sarah Brennan said. "Never did I ever think this would happen."
Before the game, Kroll wrote on the dry erase board in the Tampa Catholic locker room: "Relentless the whole game. Nothing less."
Tampa Catholic's blueprint to success: Run a fast-paced offense that morphs into a suffocating press defense after made baskets, a formula that averages 70.4 points. But with the Hustlers keeping pace through the first half, the Crusaders couldn't break away. The Crusaders (29-2) broke through with a 15-0 run to end the third quarter — Eule scored nine of her game-high 27 points during that stretch — holding the Hustlers without a basket for nearly eight minutes. The Crusaders finished with 19 steals and just 11 turnovers.
"I think by the third quarter, they were worn out," said Brennan, who added 16 points. "We wanted to have no regrets."
By the end of the game, Kroll was looking up at the rafters, where the boys basketball banners outnumber the girls' 16-8. And the talk was about narrowing that gap.
"That was one of goals," Kroll said. "Which banner is it going to be? We'd like to see the state championship one, but having a final four one that says girls basketball is going to be pretty awesome, too."