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Springstead's season plays out according to plan

SPRING HILL — For all its unprecedented brilliance, all its history-making appeal, the book on the 2009 Springstead Eagles isn't one of those compelling page turners.

There are no watershed moments. No breakthrough wins. No personal adversities that galvanized the team and sparked an us-against-the-world mentality. To the contrary, players and coaches insist anyone who saw the season's initial chapters knew how the end would turn out.

The spring tournament efforts, the succession of summer league games, the big win against Class 5A state finalist Clearwater in a tournament at Oldsmar Christian — all were dead giveaways for what would transpire in the ensuing months.

"I think by the time the season started," Eagles second-year coach Pat Kelly said, "we knew we were going to be pretty good."

But this good? The Eagles (30-0), who face top-ranked Pensacola (29-5) in today's Class 4A state semifinals at the Lakeland Center, are on the cusp of local immortality. No Hernando County team has ever won a boys basketball state title, and no team from the Pasco-Hernando area has finished a season undefeated.

Whether Kelly and Co. saw all this coming is unlikely; one simply doesn't project perfection. Nonetheless, the Eagles say from the season's outset, they realized they were poised for a special winter.

For senior scoring leader Isaiah Mason, the first significant sign arrived "last summer, when we played a couple of hard teams like Clearwater … and we actually beat Clearwater.

"They didn't have one of their best players," Mason added, "but we still beat them. After that tournament, we won that tournament, we knew we were good."

Six of the top seven scorers and top three rebounders returned from the previous season's 22-5 club, whose playoff hopes were unceremoniously dashed with a semifinal loss to Hudson in the district tournament. Dante Valentine, the 2008 team's top scorer, missed that game with an elbow injury.

Valentine was among this season's returners. The most significant loss from the '08 team, imposing forward Nehemiah Mason (16.4 ppg), was replaced by lanky senior sibling Isaiah, who missed most of his junior season due to academic ineligibility. To anyone who would listen, Kelly insisted Isaiah was brimming with promise.

"It was all a matter of getting everybody on the same page," Valentine said. "I mean, everybody individually could do something, but the team concept wasn't always there."

Hence the busy offseason. In the stickiness of summer, in gymnasiums often rife with humidity and empty bleachers, the Eagles grew — literally and figuratively. Isaiah Mason added 3 inches to his 6-foot-2 frame. Kelly added a few wrinkles to his schemes.

In the process, roles were embraced.

Mason and Valentine, a 6-foot spitfire with uncanny instinctiveness, pretty much did it all. Senior Dominique Roberson became a bona fide third scoring option and suffocating defender. Juniors Nick Steadman and Addison O'Neil blossomed as perimeter defensive stoppers, tallying 56 and 55 steals, respectively.

Senior Ben Noury, junior Ryan Sabaski and sophomore Sal Latimer provided quality minutes off the bench.

"In the spring you're scratching your head and you're saying, 'What direction should I take this? Should we do what we do?' " Kelly said. "We had kind of made a commitment to go not in a different direction, but to really stress some things that we didn't stress enough last year.

"In the beginning it was like, 'There's not a whole lot of difference here.' … And we played really, really well in that (Oldsmar) tournament and I was like, 'If we can do that we'll be all right.' "

In the season opener, the Eagles topped a woefully outmanned Pasco team 88-12. The next three months, only three teams — Nature Coast, Land O'Lakes and Citrus — would come within single digits of defeating the Eagles.

It wasn't always pretty. Occasionally, the Eagles put off some with their brashness and combustibility. Then again, Kelly's club never pretended to be the Hickory Huskers. Doesn't matter anyway. These Eagles never seemed destined for the storybooks.

But they just might make the history books.

"I knew it," Valentine said. "We knew everybody could play when we first started playing together."

Springstead's season plays out according to plan 03/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 11:17pm]

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