LAKELAND — Hours after their victory over Pensacola in Thursday afternoon's Class 4A state boys basketball semifinal, a few Springstead players lobbied coach Pat Kelly to stick around and watch the 6A semifinal that tipped off around 9 p.m.
"We're going home," Kelly said tersely as he made his way to the Lakeland Center exit. Kelly and his staff had more work to do. They had just seen Cocoa, their opponent in today's final, pull away late to defeat Bartow 61-52 before a vocal pro-Bartow audience of roughly 2,000.
"They're very skilled," Kelly said en route to the parking lot. "They're like, solid top to bottom."
With that, Kelly and Co. headed home to cram for the biggest final of their lives. Cocoa (30-3) represents a tall order for the Eagles (31-0). How tall? We'll let you be the judge. The following is our tale of the tape of this afternoon's clash of Florida's premier Class 4A heavyweights for the undisputed title.
Unlike Pensacola's guards, shaky ballhandlers who lacked shooting touch, Cocoa has kids who appear more adept at handling the Eagles' daunting perimeter harassment. Junior point guard Reggie Clark (9.6 ppg, 3.3 assists) and 5-foot-5 freshman Jesse Capell (five points, three assists in semifinals) mostly seemed poised against Bartow's pressure, though Clark did commit six turnovers. Senior shooting guard Julius Reid had 21 points in the semifinals, hitting 3 of 6 3-point tries. Today, they'll get an eyeful of Eagles guards Dante Valentine, Addison O'Neil and Nick Steadman, who combined for 11 steals against Pensacola. Springstead's plan likely will be the same it employed Thursday: force turnovers up top and keep the ball from getting inside, where the opposition will have a size advantage. Kelly said Valentine (24 points) was the best player on the floor against Pensacola. We agree.
If the Tigers consistently work the ball inside, Springstead might be in trouble. Six-foot-5 power forward Ellis Young, arguably Cocoa's top player (14.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg), is complemented by 6-5 junior D'Mario Hollingsworth, who appeared downright freakish with his elevation against Bartow. Tigers coach James Rowe called Hollingsworth's effort Thursday (nine points, five boards) his best of the year. That said, Springstead outrebounded a much bigger Pensacola team. "I think the rebounding part of it, the physicality part of it, yeah, you know, we've just got to defend them," Kelly said. Eagles 6-4 forward Isaiah Mason scored 11 — his third-lowest total of the season — against Pensacola, but 6-1 senior Dominique Roberson nearly had a double double (11 points, nine rebounds, five assists). And we're still trying to figure out how some of Valentine's shots in the low post got past Pensacola's sprawling limbs into the basket.
Each team employs about a seven- to eight-player rotation. Springstead had eight players score in the semifinals; Cocoa seven.
Rowe, 47, is 293-90 in 13 seasons at Cocoa, his alma mater. This is his first state tournament appearance. Kelly, 57, is a 400-game winner who made eight state finals appearances while coaching in Delaware. Instead of booking hotel rooms in Lakeland, Kelly has kept the Eagles on routine and in their own beds at night. Because his team was unaccustomed to playing in large arenas, where there's no gym wall directly behind the backboard and players can feel like they're shooting the ball into outer space, Rowe arranged to have his kids practice Wednesday at the USF Sun Dome. Shrewd.
Though Cocoa fans' 93-mile drive to Lakeland isn't much farther than the trip for Eagles followers (69 or so miles), Springstead should have a larger following today. Clearly, the Spring Hill community has rallied around this team, seeking to become the first boys or girls team in the Pasco-Hernando area to finish undefeated. Both clubs should be confident; Springstead disposed of the state's No. 1-ranked team in the semifinals, and Cocoa defeated Bartow in what essentially was a home game for the Yellow Jackets.
Mark us down as believers. The Eagles won't be denied. Springstead, 60-55.