LAKELAND — When the Tampa Catholic girls basketball team walked into the same Lakeland Center locker room as last year during its first trip to the state final four, the players made sure everyone sat in a different spot.
Since their season ended last February in the Class 3A semifinal, the Crusaders' focus was on a return trip. A nondistrict schedule packed with heavyweights, as well as a season full of keeping with superstitions, led them back to Lakeland.
They wore the same pink shoelaces since a breast cancer fundraiser last month. They even went extra days without cutting their fingernails.
But it was their experience in the spotlight that propelled the Crusaders to their first state title berth with a 65-53 win over Tallahassee Rickards on Wednesday. No county team has won a title since 1996, when Holy Names claimed the crown.
"We definitely were able to take advantage of the fact that the other team hadn't been here before," Tampa Catholic senior forward Sarah Brennan said. "They were like us last year."
The Crusaders (29-2) face Orlando Bishop Moore (24-7), a team they beat by 14 in early December, in today's championship.
"We have been on a mission," Crusaders coach Nancy Kroll said. "Our goal was not only to make it back but to win it. We think we can play with anybody in the state, regardless of their classification."
On Wednesday, Tampa Catholic dominated Rickards (25-7), making its first state appearance, from the start. The Crusaders' press flustered the Raiders early, and TC, which forced 19 turnovers, capitalized with a 23-12 first-quarter lead created from several easy scores off miscues.
"They rushed us into making bad decisions," Rickards coach Chariya Davis said. "If we had been a little more patient and taken our time, maybe it would have been different. They're a good team. You're not going to break their press with one or two passes."
Tampa Catholic extended the lead to 13 early in the second, but the Raiders closed the gap to 35-30 in the third quarter. The Crusaders answered with a 15-2 run that all but ended the game.
Junior point guard Meghan Keough dictated the Crusaders' pace as TC outran Rickards up and down the court, with Brennan and senior Colette Eule often finishing the break on the offensive end.
Eule, an Air Force recruit, scored a game-high 21 on 8-for-12 shooting. Brennan added 18, and Keough scored 11 to go with seven rebounds.
TC was 5-for-7 from 3-point range, including 3-for-4 shooting from sophomore guard Micah Kroll.
"You can definitely tell how much of a difference it is since last year," Eule said. "I remember coming here and I think I psyched myself out last year.
"Last year's game was such a hard way to end the season. This is way better than last year."