TAMPA — Tampa Catholic will soon hang another district championship banner in the rafters of its gym, whether its season comes to an end today at Lake Placid or sometime next weekend in Lakeland.
This will be the Crusaders’ fifth straight banner, another symbol of the program’s recent run of dominance against opponents in its district, Hillsborough County and far beyond county limits.
That banner, whenever it joins the others high above the hardwood, will have little in common with the rest other than appearance.
In their first year under head coach Matthew Rocha, the Crusaders suffered through their worst season since 2004-05 — when their four seniors were in fourth grade — and seemed on the verge of missing the playoffs until returning to their winning ways down the stretch.
These are not your older sister’s Crusaders: they are less experienced, more vulnerable and almost certainly will not be confused with teams that claimed Class 3A state championships in 2010 and 2011.
“We’ve definitely had our ups and downs,” Rocha said. “And our record reflects that. It hasn’t been the easiest to keep up the morale and the optimism.”
But Tampa Catholic, the only bay area program to win a state title since Academy of the Holy Names in 1996, seems poised to make another deep postseason run.
Rocha and the Crusaders (11-14) will face Lake Placid today in a Class 4A region semifinal. A victory would send them to the region final, where an overtime loss to Fort Myers Dunbar last February ended a four-year final four run and set off a round of drastic changes.
Little more than a month after that defeat, Tampa Catholic parted ways with then-head coach Nancy Kroll. The move came as a surprise, given that Kroll went 146-33 in six seasons at TC — winning at least 20 games each year.
Kroll suggested philosophical differences led to a change in direction. Principal Thomas Reidy released a statement thanking Kroll and “wish(ing) her continued success in her future endeavors.”
The loss of Kroll was a blow to players like Brittany Betts, who won a state title under Kroll in her freshman season and wasn’t prepared for change heading into her senior year.
“It’s just something I was used to for the past three years,” Betts said. “To not have (Kroll) around anymore, it was disappointing.”
Enter Matthew Rocha, a 25-year-old coach’s son from Jacksonville who spent a year managing a Smoothie King in Pasco County before returning to the sideline. Rocha came to Tampa Catholic from Ridgewood, where he went 34-20 in two seasons.
Rocha said he was eager to take over a program with a sturdy foundation but wary of the expectations.
“This is the sort place you want to coach,” he said. “But we knew the road ahead would be rough.”
Rocha reached out to seniors Betts and Danielle Battle, who were close to Kroll and had gone 78-17 in the past three seasons, during the summer and asked them to give him a chance.
They needed that patience during the Crusaders’ dismal start, which included losses in seven of their first 10 games. That stretch was punctuated by a 48-39 defeat at Holy Names that snapped an 11-game winning streak in the crosstown Catholic school rivalry.
“I don’t think words can capture how we felt” after that game, Rocha said. “That was the low point.”
Rocha worked hard to keep his players engaged in the rebuilding process, and the girls redoubled their efforts after showing signs of improvement in subsequent games. With three sophomores and two freshmen on the roster, everyone realized they needed time to learn about each other and the new system.
It all came together in the district tournament, where the Crusaders dismantled Sarasota Booker in the semifinals then toppled No. 1 seed Holy Names in the final.
“That was a great feeling,” Battle said. “We knew we were going to win district. We had to go out with a bang.”
Now, even their old coach thinks they have a shot at returning to previous heights.
“It matters how you’re playing at the end of the season and they’re playing well right now,” said Kroll, who coached undefeated seventh- and eighth-grade teams at Christ the King Catholic School this year. “I really think they can do it.”