LAKELAND — Before them stood a sea of raucous, red-and-blue-clad fans, many of them classmates. Behind them, the state's No. 1-ranked Class 4A team dejectedly exited the Lakeland Center floor. Above them, scoreboards signaled their latest postseason conquest.
For Springstead's undefeated boys basketball team, such was the scenic, surreal view from the precipice of history.
Knocked throughout the season — fairly or unfairly — for their strength of schedule, the Eagles quelled a few more critics and cleared what might have been their most formidable hurdle in their quest for the school's first state championship in any team sport.
Seemingly a step faster and more focused than top-ranked Pensacola (29-6), the Eagles (31-0) forced 23 turnovers and led almost wire to wire in a convincing 61-49 triumph in Thursday afternoon's 4A semifinal. Springstead faces Cocoa in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. title game.
"It was the energy, commitment, dedication, heart, courage, irrepressible nature of our kids that was the real difference in this game," Springstead second-year coach Pat Kelly said.
If they bring all those elements to Lakeland on Saturday, the Eagles could become the first team from the Pasco-Hernando area to win a state crown since Zephyrhills' 1964 boys squad.
"They were quick, they got all the loose balls, they were well coached, they ran their offense better than we ran ours, and — gosh, this hurts me to say this — but tonight the better team won," veteran Pensacola coach Bob Stinnett said.
Buoyed by roughly 500 Eagles fans, many of them students who paid $25 a head to travel in a charter bus to the game, Springstead's ploy — harass Pensacola's less-skilled guards into a litany of cough-ups — worked from the outset.
A free throw by 6-foot-7 East Carolina signee Erin Straughn for the game's first points was the only lead Pensacola had. Springstead scored the next 10, with each starter tallying two.
When the Tigers got the ball inside to Straughn and 6-6 Florida International signee Terrance Beasley, the two were effective, teaming for 36 points. But those moments were few and far between, and Pensacola had no outside scoring threat, finishing 0-for-12 from 3-point range.
"It just seemed like we were stuck in mud," Stinnett said.
The Eagles, by contrast, seemed stuck in fourth gear, never allowing the significance of the moment to rattle them. Even when Pensacola scored six unanswered late in the third, Eagles senior guard Dante Valentine (24 points) responded with arguably the biggest play of the game.
Down only 36-30 with the final seconds ticking away in the period, Straughn missed a long jumper that was rebounded by the Eagles and tossed to Valentine on the outlet. Before desperately heaving the ball, Valentine looked at the clock, took a couple of final dribbles, and released from a few feet beyond the 3-point line.
"Dante Valentine, to me, tonight was the best player on the floor," Kelly said.
"The tapes I saw (of him) weren't overly impressive," Stinnett added, "but he impressed my butt tonight, I promise you."
Valentine added a game-high five steals. Classmates Dominique Roberson and Isaiah Mason each scored 11, with Roberson adding nine rebounds.
"I actually thought that since they played all these tournaments against out-of-state teams that they were used to these big games and these big gyms," Valentine said. "But we got settled pretty quick, calmed down, took over the game and handled the pressure.
"It was comfortable to us."