St. Petersburg Catholic is making its third straight trip to the boys basketball state final four. That's no easy task. In fact, since the playoffs were expanded in 1964 from one round to two (and again in 1994 from two rounds to three), no team from Pinellas County has made it to three consecutive state semifinals.
But nine programs have made three or more trips overall, and all but Largo have at least one state title to show for their efforts.
So it's the Barons' turn this year, and here are eight reasons why.
1. WHAT UP, HOLMES?
Though fans of Pinellas legends Dametri Hill and David White might object, Aaron Holmes makes a strong case for being the county's best ever. He is certainly one of its hardest working players, and when it comes to winning a state title, he's downright obsessed. Lots of players pay lip service to winning one, but Holmes is willing to place his legacy on it.
If SPC knocks off St. Andrew's, it will be the 100th win for Holmes. He has more than 2,500 career points, a school record and second all-time. He is the two-time defending Times all-county and all-Suncoast Player of the Year.
"Aaron's done it all," coach Mike Moran said. "Four district titles, three regions, three final fours, played in a championship game. It'd be nice if we can get that last one."
2. GOODBYE, FLORIDA AIR. HELLO, LAKELAND
SPC's nemesis has been powerhouse Florida Air, which knocked off the Barons en route to state titles in 2003 and 2005.
But the path of a champion usually progresses in incremental steps. Look at Michael Jordan's Bulls (anyone remember Detroit?) or John Elway's Denver Broncos or Marv Levy's Buffalo okay, scratch that last one.
Point is, ding dong, the wicked witch is dead, and the No. 1 team all year is no longer. SPC knocked off No. 6 Bishop Verot for good measure, and enters Lakeland as a slight favorite.
3. EXPERIENCE, EXPERIENCE, EXPERIENCE
This isn't the most senior-laden team the Barons have had, but it is definitely the most battle-tested. It has an excellent big-game performer in FSU-bound Holmes, who has started every game the past three seasons.
Point guard Grady Jorgensen showed his mettle last year in the state semis and has been big in the big games. Guard Jock Sanders started last year's state semifinal, and guard Noah Cumby watched from the bench. Oh, and the Barons added Ed Rolax, who not only played in the state semifinals with Admiral Farragut in 2004, but won a championship.
4. ROLAX WATCH
Billy Tapp was one of the county's better big men last year, but his game was completely different than new center Rolax's and he was not as athletic. Though Tapp had all the intangibles - coolness, leadership, court savvy - Rolax is an upgrade offensively and defensively.
"Ed's been great," Cumby said. "He's been amazing on defense with rebounds and blocked shots and he does a great job on the post."
Rolax admits it took a while to get adjusted but, after December, things started rolling. He's the perfect fit on a team that needs a presence to go with a passel of outside gunners.
"At first, I didn't know my role and I was a bit tentative," Rolax said. "But now, we all know each other's games, and the way Aaron, Grady and Noah are hitting their outside shots, I handle business down low, getting rebounds and applying defensive pressure."
5. DESTINY'S CHILD
If two straight overtime wins aren't a sign that the stars are aligning just right for the Barons, then we don't know what is?
Look at pretty much every NCAA Tournament and you'll find a championship team that had to pull out some wins in the earlier rounds. There's something to be said about championship teams finding a way to win down the stretch and there's also something to be respected about the basketball gods just wanting it a certain way.
"It shows a lot about the character of our team and our heart," said Cumby. "Most teams would have crumbled in situations like that, but we found a way to win."
6. SUPER FANS
Let's see. They've done the popcorn (where you jump up and down incessantly), the sway (where you circle around and around insanely), the whoosh (where you put your hands in the air during a free throw and drop'em down quick after a make) and the countdown (where you count backward from 10 during an opposing player's free throw). The SPC fans, affectionately known as the Meehan Madmen, arrive in abundance at home and away games and yell, scream and cheer in organized mayhem throughout the contest. And most importantly, they give the Barons home-court advantage wherever they play.
Just ask the girls team, which saw the masses come out for them as well last week.
"They've been amazing since Aaron's freshman year," Moran said. "They probably outnumbered the Florida Air fans when we played there. They definitely get us pumped up."
7. TAKE 3!
Mike Moran can flat out coach. Yes, he has Holmes, but he was winning district titles before his best player set foot on campus.
When it comes to the playoffs, teams will match up fairly even. To advance, especially in close games, it often comes down to one simple question: Who can coach and who can't? Moran has guided the Barons to two straight overtime victories, and his steady hand is underrated.
"He's our Phil Jackson," Holmes said. "The other night, when Bishop Verot was coming back on us (Verot rallied from a 17-point deficit), he was cool, calm and collected on the bench. That just told us to stay calm and things would be all right."
Pinellas coaching legend Roy King took Largo (1957-59) and Dixie Hollins (1961-63) to three consecutive state semifinals (though he needed to win only one game to get there), and and well, other than Moran, he's the only coach to do it.
8. AHEM. GUYS, YOU'RE DUE!
Going all the way back to 1925, Clearwater didn't win its first title until its 12th try at the state semifinals. Lakewood needed four trips to state to win its first title in 2002. Admiral Farragut needed two failed attempts.
But, hey, not everyone can be Gibbs, which won championships in 1967 and '69 in its first two trips to state under coach Freddie Dyles.
The Barons have done everything right to this point. They have the county's best player, one of the most solid supporting casts, one of the best coaches, one of the best groups of fans, and they shouldn't be intimidated in Lakeland. What more can you ask for?
Well, yeah, besides a state title.
- JOHN C. COTEY, Times staff writer
CHRIS GIRANDOLA, Times correspondent