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Cotey: At Springstead, a vision nothing short of perfect

SPRING HILL — To find the state's only undefeated public school boys basketball team, start north on Interstate 75, hang a left on State Road 52, take a right on Shady Hills Road, which becomes Mariner Boulevard, which takes you right into the heart of Spring Hill.

Past heavily commercialized roads populated with every chain gas station, store and fast food joint known to man, you'll find the Springstead Eagles.

Region champions.

A perfect 30-0.

Getting ready for their first state semifinal doing what they've been doing since November — sprinting up and down a blue rubber basketball court that is one part eyesore, two parts magic.

"We haven't lost on it since I've been here," says coach Pat Kelly, finding the blue court's silver lining.

"I hate the blue floor," forward Dominique Roberson said, "but I guess it's to our advantage."

You either want to run from the building upon seeing it or get run off it.

Saturday night, Springstead "blue" out Ocala West Port in a brilliant display of passing, shooting, running.

By the third quarter, West Port's players were asking their coach for a breather.

Today, they can catch their breath.

Springstead?

Back out there, running, running, running.

• • •

After Springstead wrapped up its 76-47 victory Saturday night, Roberson, a 6-2 forward, grabbed his cell phone and called King standout Toarlyn Fitzpatrick.

"We made a pact in the beginning of the season we'd see each other in Lakeland," Roberson said. "No excuses."

Three years ago, they were teammates at King, then Roberson found out he was switching schools.

"I was mad. I was angry. … I was real angry," he said.

He left the big city for a school hardly regarded for its athletic prowess, unless you happened to compete wearing a singlet.

In its first 32 years, in baseball, football and basketball, Springstead won two playoff games.

This year's hoops team has won three.

"When you said you played at Springstead, people laughed at you," Roberson said.

Not anymore.

Kelly has masterfully melded a group of transfers and veterans into an undefeated team.

Along the way, the Eagles have rubbed a few folks the wrong way.

Criticized for their brashness and style and a schedule that was too weak, Springstead just kept on winning, even if at times it seemed no one was paying the Eagles respect or attention.

"At first, I think that got on all our nerves," said Roberson, but now, the Eagles seem to revel in their unknown, underdog status.

Forward Isaiah Mason, who had 22 points Saturday, says for all the talk about what the Eagles don't have, here's what they do have: chemistry.

A bond.

"We've come together," he said, "and now we're like brothers."

• • •

This team may have feasted on a subpar schedule, but make no mistake, it is good enough to win the Class 4A state championship.

Point guard Dante Valentine is a spitfire, tenacious on defense and just the same on offense.

Mason, a slinky forward, is an emerging talent, averaging almost 20 points a game.

Roberson would be a star at most other places.

Addison O'Neil, Sal Latimer, Nick Steadman, in your face, and backed by a deep bench.

They are fun to watch and just as frenetic as Kelly.

The 55-year-old coach paced in front of the bench Saturday, screaming, contorting, agonizing even with a 30-point lead.

By the end, he was a sweaty mess, and you wonder if his players doused him with a bucket of ice water afterward to keep him from exploding.

He barely flinched.

A longtime veteran of coaching in Pennsylvania and Delaware, Kelly is in his second season at Springstead.

His first ended unceremoniously in the district semifinals, when his Eagles were stunned by Hudson.

His second is, well, perfect.

"A testament to the kids," he said. "They play with passion, and when you do that, it gives you a chance to win."

Kelly came to the conclusion years ago on a water board, about a mile offshore looking at the sky as the Atlantic Ocean shuffled him from wave to wave, that he was probably doomed to coach until he died.

Only a fully committed coach would wake up Sunday after a victory, go to church, then take a 14-hour road trip to Pensacola and back to pick up game film on Thursday's opponent.

Kelly was back in his Bayport home by 1:30 a.m., up at 5:30 Monday to start watching tape.

"I'd be looking at it right now if it wasn't for this interview."

• • •

The Eagles will say goodbye to the blue floor Thursday and head off to Lakeland.

They are confident they can win a state title, a task no one but them even remotely considered at the beginning of the season.

"Springstead who?" Mason said people would utter.

Now the bandwagon is loading up, ready to start on that drive down Mariner Boulevard until it turns into Shady Hills Road. …

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com.

Cotey: At Springstead, a vision nothing short of perfect 03/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 11:37am]
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