ST. PETERSBURG — For the past seven seasons, St. Petersburg Catholic's final regular-season game offered a chance for players and fans to say goodbye and for coaches to start thinking about next spring.
This year was different. There was no sighing as other teams in the Barons' district towered over them. Players did not turn in their jerseys.
"We're not done yet," defensive lineman Elevisi Halapio said.
These Barons are in the playoffs as the Class 3A, District 5 runnerup and will travel to Sarasota Cardinal Mooney for Friday's region quarterfinal.
St. Petersburg Catholic (7-3) has done more than make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. The postseason berth has helped the Barons restore the image of a program tarnished after the Florida High School Athletic Association levied fines and issued a three-year playoff ban in May 2006 stemming from recruiting and illegal practice violations.
Without any hope for the postseason, the Barons suffered as players and interest waned. There were glimpses of success, but there was an overhaul to complete.
"The punishment that was handed down was very punitive," said former athletic director John Gerdes, who took over in 2006 after the program was penalized. "I knew it would take a while to get to the playoffs, but I never thought it would take this long."
In the past seven seasons the Barons were a combined 22-47. There were glimmers of hope, as in 2009 when SPC was one game from the playoffs. But it never happened. In two of those seasons (2009-10) the Barons played up in classification rather than stay in a district that would have required more traveling.
"After the postseason ban some players dispersed," said former SPC coach Tod Creneti, now at Bradenton St. Stephen's. "The biggest change we wanted to do at that time was to restore faith within the program and become good neighbors again within the community.
"I think we achieved that, and we had some years where we were competitive. But it was difficult to keep it going on a consistent basis."
In 2010, Steve Dudley left Canterbury to take over the Barons. He struggled, too, going 2-8 his first season. But with hard work and the energy and optimism of a camp counselor, Dudley has slowly turned things around.
SPC showed signs of improvement last year with a 4-6 record. This year, they've put it all together. The offensive line, led by Miami recruit Reilly Gibbons, has paved the way for running backs Tony Jones and Jacquan Fuller to each gain 1,000 yards in the regular season. The defense, powered by linemen Leo Corrigan and Halapio, has been adept at getting after the quarterback.
"It's been a grind as far as getting back into the playoffs," Dudley said. "But that's what makes it more rewarding."
Halapio is the first from his family to experience the playoffs. His older brother, Jon, now a senior starting lineman at Florida, was a freshman at SPC when the ban was handed down.
"It was tough for my brother not to make the playoffs when he was here," Halapio said. "But I talked to him and he said he was proud of the team and the way we've been able to put the Barons back on the map."