SPRING HILL — At least one day a week, the Springstead Eagles have a practice devoted almost exclusively to defensive fundamentals, the roundball equivalent of eating all your carrots and cauliflower.
Players sprint to the guy who picks up his dribble, and swarm the dude who catches the lead pass. They cut off passing lanes and holler out defensive signals until hoarseness sets in. They lower their rear ends and shuffle their feet for what seems like miles, with a few dozen pushups sprinkled in.
"If they do it the right way," second-year coach Pat Kelly said, "it's not fun."
Yet the very drills that induce vomiting also have induced victories, 29 of them to date. Win No. 30, Saturday at home against Ocala West Port (23-6), would get them into the Class 4A state tournament.
"Every practice that's what coach (stresses)," junior guard Addison O'Neil said. "He wants defense, defense. Perimeter defense, interior defense. And that's what we try to bring."
In these parts, nobody brings it better. For all their offensive potency, the undefeated Eagles are enjoying the best season in program history primarily because of how they perform when the other team has the ball.
Springstead, in the region finals for the first time, is allowing 42.4 points a game. Only four opponents have scored more than 60; none have reached 70. As a team, they are collecting nearly 16 steals a contest, with seniors Dante Valentine (4.3 steals per game) and Dominique Roberson (3.0) leading the way.
Those numbers can be attributed primarily to Kelly, an old-school defensive fundamentalist with a thick Pittsburgh accent and a philosophy culled over the years from defense-minded teachers such as Tim Grgurich (ex-Pittsburgh and UNLV coach) and Dick Bennett (who led Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four).
"Coach Kelly, that's what he presses on, defense," senior Isaiah Mason said. "Every practice, defense. Defense."
At its essence, Kelly's philosophy seems as if it were gleaned from the Hoosiers script: Yell out where the ball's moving. Shut down passing lanes. Defend just as intensely off the ball as on it. Move your feet.
"We have tons of terms that we have to call out," O'Neil said, "so in the game we can call that out and we can all move together and rotate to where we're supposed to go."
Combine those principles with sheer athleticism, and you've got the best Springstead team ever. When Hudson succumbed to a sequence of forced and unforced errors in the second quarter of Tuesday's region semifinals, Springstead made the Cobras pay with a 13-3 run. Five players scored during that spurt.
The Eagles never trailed again. While it's one thing to force turnovers, it's another to finish.
At this rate, the Eagles just might finish their season in Lakeland, site of the state tournament.
"I was brought up exposed to a lot of different people," said Kelly, 51-5 in two seasons at Springstead. "And if you keep teaching and stand by your principles, then you can play with anybody because defense can make up for size. And we're pretty athletic and we share the ball, so we'll be in games."