Today, Boca Ciega High plays in the Class 4A state boys basketball championship in Tallahassee, a chance to shine among Florida's best teams.
But, Monday afternoon, the Pirates looked quite mortal, struggling against the substitutes in practice. After the subs stole the ball again, coach Randy Shuman blew his whistle, walked without hurry toward his team and explained the problem.
Shuman will save the yelling for later. After an hour of practicing plays, the players broke to shoot free throws. The task turned into goofing off with players trying flashy dunks and impractical long-range shots.
"This is what we do. This is our practice," Shuman said, gesturing to the levity. "What time is it? This is enough for today. Tomorrow, I'll beat them up and get their attention."
It is a game Shuman plays often with this bunch; relax, yell, time for play, time for work. After 33 games and countless practices, it becomes a balance between burning the players out and letting them get out of control.
"Sometimes, I think we're too loose," point guard Corey Ellis said. "But when it gets time to play, we get focused."
The balance has worked as Boca Ciega has run its way to a 31-2 record, a second straight Pinellas County Athletic Conference title and another shot at the state championship. The last Pinellas County public school to win a state title was Boca Ciega, in 1986.
Boca Ciega plays at 6:30 p.m. today against Rutherford High of Springfield (near Panama City). If the Pirates win, they play Friday for the state title.
"I always felt like we could get to state," said Ellis, one of two senior starters. "Now, we will try to do something with it."
Ellis is the shortest of the starters, at 5 feet 7, but he also is one of the leaders. He has grown in ability and perspective.
"Corey is loose, but he's becoming much more serious as he sees his days in a jersey winding down," Shuman said. "He's accepting the leadership role.
In the past two play-off games, Ellis has led the team in scoring, with 20 and 19 points, respectively. Shuman said Ellis used to try too hard to score, but now he gets the ball to his teammates and scores when he gets an opportunity.
The other guard is junior Dain Brown, "one of the hardest guys to coach," Shuman said. "And I mean that as a compliment. A guy like that can take over a game at any time. You have to have a player like that, a go-to guy."
Brown, a deadly shooter, was named the most valuable player in both holiday tournaments the Pirates played in and won.
Hank Grant is the senior football star who could not stay away from the basketball court. A linebacker recruit for Florida State University, Grant initially was not going to play basketball and concentrate on getting ready for next season.
"It was just eating at me. I wanted to play," said Grant, who joined the team during the holidays.
At 6 feet 3, Grant is not tall by basketball standards. But at 215 pounds, he makes room for himself, as does 6-foot-3, 220-pound Elbert Newton.
Newton has improved from his substitute days of last year, adding a soft jump shot to his ability to muscle his way underneath the basket.
Andy Bolin, a junior, plays forward. Like Newton, he was a sub last year. Already, today's trip to Tallahassee is frosting.
"Our goals were to win 20 games and the conference. This is beyond my wildest dreams," said Bolin, who is sort of the handy man of the team. If something needs fixing _ more rebounding, more scoring, more steals _ Bolin usually finds a way."
Darren Howard is the "sixth man," a basketball term for the first substitute off the bench who usually plays as much as the starters. A great jumper, Howard comes in for Bolin, Newton or Grant.
For the past two years, the Pirates have been Pinellas' best team. Now, they get a chance to show off on a statewide stage.
"We have a strong team," Grant said. "We just have to go out and prove it."