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Tampa Catholic’s road warriors return home for playoff game

The Crusaders made the best of the situation after planned construction forced them out of their gym.
Tampa Catholic forward Derrick Mitchell (24) drives to the basket against Lake Highland Prep's Gabe Ferguson (25) during a game in March at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
Tampa Catholic forward Derrick Mitchell (24) drives to the basket against Lake Highland Prep's Gabe Ferguson (25) during a game in March at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. [ Times (2020) ]
Published Feb. 11
Updated Feb. 11

TAMPA — This season was already strange thanks to the pandemic. Then it got even more bizarre for Tampa Catholic’s basketball teams.

In early 2020, Tampa Catholic athletic director/coach Don Dziagwa got word that the school’s gym would not be available for the 2020-21 season because it would undergo a $4 million renovation beginning that December.

So Dziagwa set his schedule accordingly, which meant playing every game on the road.

But when Dec. 1 rolled around, there was no construction. It was pushed back to the following month, and then it was pushed back again until after the season.

All too late for Dziagwa to adjust his schedule.

“I couldn’t suddenly go to other schools and say, ‘Can we switch your home game to our court?’” said Dziagwa, who has been making schedules for more than three decades. “We had no choice at that point.”

So the Crusaders proceeded to play 22 games on the road, going 16-6 and earning the No. 1 seed in Class 4A, District 10.

Tampa Catholic coach Don Dziagwa paces the sideline during a 2020 game at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
Tampa Catholic coach Don Dziagwa paces the sideline during a 2020 game at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. [ Times (2020) ]

Was it easy?

“Those bus rides, one after the other, and all those later nights without a break, it did get you a little more tired sometimes,” junior guard Derrick Mitchell said. “It was like we were the underdog every game.”

Was it more adventurous?

“We had a couple of buses that showed up late and pushed back starting times, of games,” Dziagwa said. “But everybody worked with us pretty well.”

Did it make the team better in some ways?

“I think it did,” Mitchell said. “It brought us closer together. It was like an us-against-the-world type of thing.”

Now a couple of days before Friday night’s district semifinal, Tampa Catholic will finally host a game (against Gibbs) because the gym is, after all, available.

“It’s going to feel really good to finally play at home,” said Mitchell, who has at least been able to practice with his team in the gym throughout the season. “We feel prepared.”

Tampa Catholiic guard Roderick Watson-Pearcey drives to the basket for two of his 10 points during the Crusaders' 103-71 victory over Robinson in the final of the City of Tampa Tournament.
Tampa Catholiic guard Roderick Watson-Pearcey drives to the basket for two of his 10 points during the Crusaders' 103-71 victory over Robinson in the final of the City of Tampa Tournament. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

On paper, Tampa Catholic looks young but formidable, led by freshman Karter Knox (18 points per game), sophomores Ed Bronson (16) and Karmello Branch (11.1), and juniors Roderick Watson-Pearcey (11.3) and Mitchell (10.7).

“Some people have said, ‘Well, you guys can really do something special in a year or two when the team gets a little older,’” Dziagwa said. “I think, ‘Why can’t we do something special right now?’”

Adding to the excitement for the future are the plans for the renovation, which includes revamping locker rooms, adding a fitness and weight room, meeting rooms, scoreboards and bleachers. The wooden floor is in good shape but will get a makeover, as well.

“You look at the plans and think, ‘Wow, that looks amazing,’” Mitchell said. “Seeing the plans made it easier to play all those games on the road, because you know our new gym is coming.”

The gym is part of major upgrades throughout the school. Other areas of improvement include buildings for the performing arts, music, chapel, media center and student services.