Coming off back-to-back state championships, Brittany Betts wasn't used to losing.
Yet, when the Tampa Catholic girls basketball team stood at .500 just over midway through the season, the junior point guard had her doubts about this year's version of the Crusaders.
"To be honest, I wasn't even sure if we would get through districts," Betts said.
All that has changed. With 11 straight wins and a regional championship game set for Saturday against visiting Fort Myers Dunbar at 7, Tampa Catholic again finds itself one game away from Lakeland's final four.
"We've had some ups and downs this year," senior post player Kai Jones said. "But we all have each other's backs and we've held it all together."
Losing even a handful of games is something TC hasn't been accustomed to the past few years. The Crusaders, 20-9 this year, had lost nine games in the past three seasons combined.
"It's not something these kids have been used to, and the losses kept piling up," coach Nancy Kroll said. "But I kept telling them to 'Hang in there, keep hanging in there.' "
At one point during the season, TC was an average 9-9. But Kroll didn't have to look far to point out a big reason for the Crusaders' mediocrity — injuries.
"We've had a ton," she said.
Kroll tried to run down the list, but it appeared to become laborious. Gracie Dziagwa, Micah Kroll, Danielle Battle and Betts all limped through the early part of the season with various leg injuries. But the biggest loss was Jones, who missed seven games with what she called a "health issue."
"You just can't replace 20 points and 10 rebounds a game," Kroll said. "No one can."
Jones, who scored 27 points against Academy of the Holy Names in Tuesday's 4A Region Semifinal win, is the heart of this year's TC team.
"We know that whoever is guarding Kai can't handle her," Betts said. "So we just want to keep feeding her and feeding her."
With those 11 wins in their back pockets, the Crusaders are poised to make a run at a third state title. And with all players back and up to par, Kroll is more than pleased.
"My assistant (coach) said we are back on track," she said. "Right now we are firing on all cylinders."
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.