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Published May 11, 2011

TAMPA - Once spring break hit in mid April - and with his team seemingly aimlessly floating out to sea in the waters of mediocrity - Tampa Catholic coach Pat Russo reeled in his Crusaders with a challenge.

If his team was to reach the Class 3A state tournament for a second straight year, things would have to change. The off days from school would mean more time on the baseball diamond - and no time at the beach.

Tampa Catholic returned 14 players from a squad that went to the state semifinal last season, so it had experience. The Crusaders had 13 seniors, so they had urgency. And the Crusaders stacked their schedule with challenging nondistrict opponents - MaxPreps ranks their schedule the toughest in Class 3A.

But Tampa Catholic took its lumps early, starting the season 1-4 and suffering a midseason six-game losing streak. They had six one-run losses.

That's when spring break hit - and for Russo, no school meant no play. The Crusaders practiced twice a day, with a team lunch in between, together for about six straight hours every day. At that time, TC was 8-12.

Looking back, that week of April 16-22 turned the season around.

"I really don't think we had an identity," Russo said. "I think we were all still searching for one. After that week, and the way we played, we all realized it was all about team, all about unity, the things that bring us all together.

"I didn't really give them the opportunity to go to the beach or do all the things their friends were doing," he added. "I wore them out pretty good. At the beginning they might have thought I was a little crazy, but they bought into it. After that, we got rolling pretty good."

The Crusaders (13-14) have won five of seven since, most recently an 8-2 road win over Class 3A-10 rival Clearwater Central Catholic on Friday. Tampa Catholic suddenly finds itself again one win from the state tournament.

"Coach made that week really hard on us, knowing it's a week we're supposed to enjoy," senior catcher Gio Marrero said. "We did, we enjoyed it here on the baseball field. We worked really hard and with that, we've been successful. At the beginning we didn't work to our potential. We knew we could work harder."

Tampa Catholic travels to face Fort Myers Bishop Verot, the team the Crusaders beat last season 9-7 to advance to Port St. Lucie, in Friday's region final.

Despite denying the Vikings last season, Tampa Catholic will have to overcome an unfamiliar foe this year. Senior right-hander Hudson Boyd (10-0, 0.44 ERA, 112 Ks in 64 IP), a transfer from South Fort Myers who is committed to Florida and was a Baseball America preseason All-American, will likely start for the Vikings.

But given the run they're on, the Crusaders are beaming with confidence.

"We've had a relentless schedule," junior pitcher Derek Martin said. "That's made us stronger for right now, when that really matters. We've been in those kind of situations now, and we know how to come out on top."

Region finals

Games Friday at 7 p.m. unless noted. Admission is $6.

6A: Orlando Dr. Phillips at Alonso

5A: Durant vs. Lakeland at Joker Marchant Stadium

4A: Jesuit vs. Estero at Florida Gulf Coast University

3A: Tampa Catholic at Fort Myers Bishop Verot

2A: Shorecrest vs. Brooks-DeBartolo at Freedom High

A: Cambridge at West Palm Beach Summit Christian, 4