LAKELAND — In the state tournament program, Port St. Joe is listed as the Tiger Sharks. But in Joe Fenlon's world, they're a proverbial, Panhandle-bred white whale.
In four of his five previous final four voyages, Fenlon, Tampa Prep's 27th-year coach, has encountered Port St. Joe (26-4). All four times, he has lost. Today, in the Class 2A semifinals at the Lakeland Center, Fenlon gets another crack at slaying this interminable story line once and for all.
"It's unfortunate that these kids have to live through it because they have no control over it," Fenlon said Tuesday while putting his 26-4 team through a workout at the USF Sun Dome. "I'm the one who has been on the sidelines five times, not them. The two constants (in this rivalry) are me and my wife."
Can Fenlon finally ensnare his tube-sock terrors (check out the Sharks' purple- and gold-striped leg wear today) in his fifth try? Here are five reasons for Terps fans to believe today:
1. Port St. Joe may own Fenlon (and his assistants), but not his players: To most of the Terrapins, Port St. Joe may as well be Port St. Lucie. Only two current Terps, seniors David Fletcher and Jamal Cherry, have ever played the Tiger Sharks. Both were freshmen on the 2007 team that lost 66-63 in overtime in the 2A semifinals. "Jamal was our sixth man (on that team)," Fenlon said. "But other than that, none of these kids have ever played Port St. Joe before."
2. Tampa Prep matches up really well with this year's Sharks: Unlike past seasons, when their game was geared around a low-post star (see Casey Sanders, Walter Perkins), the Terps possess the backcourt depth to counterattack Port St. Joe's athleticism on the perimeter. "I would say defensively we're a lot quicker on this team," Cherry said. "And offensively, I think we have a lot of different options we can go to to score." Fenlon likes to say he starts five ball handlers, including the 6-foot-4 Cherry and 6-5 scoring leader Jay Bowie. That could create a matchup nightmare for a Sharks team with no one on its roster taller than 6-4. "I mean, if anybody should know the way Port St. Joe plays it should be me," Fenlon said. "And I think our style of play is more conducive to being competitive with them this year than it has been in other years."
3. The law of averages has to swing in Fenlon's favor some time, doesn't it? "I think that every time I walk in (the Lakeland Center)," Fenlon said with a chuckle. "I used to always say I wouldn't mind playing Port St. Joe every year, because that means you're in Lakeland." And it's not like the Terrapins haven't been close in previous meetings. Port St. Joe's margin of victory in the past four contests has been a total of 24 points.
4. Tampa Prep has played a more daunting schedule: Port St. Joe's regular-season slate included 16 games against teams that made the playoffs; Tampa Prep's featured 10. In this case, though, quality of playoff opposition trumps quantity. The Terrapins have played Orlando Dr. Phillips and Miami Dr. Krop — both of whom are in Lakeland this week — as well as Clearwater, independent power Oldsmar Christian and Texas prep juggernaut Grace Prep. Port St. Joe has faced Panama City Rutherford — a 4A final four qualifier — but hasn't ventured outside the Panhandle.
5. The Terrapins already have had their hard-luck experience in these playoffs: On Saturday, while en route to the region finals at Naples Community School, Tampa Prep's bus broke down on Interstate 75, minutes from its exit. The Terps sat there for an hour until the bus suddenly restarted. As a result, they had to scarf down fast food from a nearby Chick-fil-A and Panera Bread, and missed their pregame shootaround. "That was a little crazy," Cherry said. "We didn't know if we were going to make it to the game on time."