Weathering the storm seems to a theme for the Tampa Catholic girls basketball team this season.
Following their second straight state title in 2011 and three consecutive years of reaching the State Final Four, the Crusaders (14-9) have set the bar high for themselves. However, after losing their leading scorer and primary ball handler from last year to graduation, the team got off to a slow start as coach Nancy Kroll's stepdaughter, Micah Kroll, took the reins.
"It's been a tough challenge for me to step into that role this season," Micah Kroll said. "Thankfully we had good team captains last year that I've been able to look at see how they got the team motivated. I have off and on games, but this is a good team around me, so I just focus on them sometimes."
In the beginning, Kroll was on her own as fellow senior captain Kai Jones missed the first seven games with health concerns surrounding her heart. Though it was a difficult time for the team, it gave Jones a chance to step back and realize what she can bring to the team.
"I think my time out helped me because it showed me what I needed to bring to the game for us when I got back," Jones said. "Last year, we had Meghan Keough to lead, but this year it's more on me and Micah (Kroll) so everyday we learn something and we try to build on it."
Over the last year, Jones' game has developed as she has added a number of post up moves that allow her to get to the basket easier.
"I had those moves last year, I just didn't have them perfected, so I held them back," Jones said. "My dad taught me that stuff, so I've been bringing it out this year."
Both Kroll and Jones have Tampa Catholic greatness in their blood. Kroll's father, Michael, and Jones' father, Tommy, were both 1,000-point scorers for the school in their playing days. Kroll joined her father in the 1,000-point club earlier this year, making them the first father-daughter duo to achieve the feat in school history.
The daughters have both been a part of the last two state championship teams, but it wasn't until this year that they took over as the team's primary scoring threats, with both averaging just under 20 points per game.
For coach Kroll, the return of Jones has equaled improving performances as the season goes on and now they are beginning to hit on all cylinders as they get ready for districts.
"We have our dynamic duo and everybody just needs to do what they do," Kroll said. "I think it really comes down to confidence. We have three good outside shooters who practice with shooting contests against each other, and it's paying off. Inside we have Kai (Jones), and I always say the only person that can stop Kai is Kai."
Additionally, the team is led up the court on each possession by junior guard Brittany Betts, who this season has been expected to take control of the offense and serve both as a distributor and third scoring option behind seniors Kroll and Jones. With a lot of the weight resting on her shoulders, coach Kroll has been happy with how she has responded.
"I think she has improved her dribbling game because there is a lot more pressure on her now," Kroll said. "I think this year is a bit of a learning experience for her too as she figures out when take risks and when to pull back. She's a great foul shooter and has been in double digits points wise all season for us, so I think she's doing well."
On Friday night, the Crusaders beat their rivals from the Academy of Holy Names 65-45 in their second meeting this season. After trailing 18-9 after the first quarter, the Crusaders responded by allowing just eight points in the next two quarters.
"I just told them to weather the storm like we have all year," Kroll said. "We weren't playing our game. We needed to maintain a certain tempo and keep pressing but I think maybe they were a bit nervous in the first quarter. I didn't scream at them because I knew eventually we were goint to start making some of the shots we were missing early."
The shots did begin to go down. Jones would finish with 22 points while Kroll and Betts added 17 and 13 respectively. As they prepare for the road ahead, the coach sees their chances at a third straight state title beginning to come to life.
"I always like our chances," Kroll said. "We just have to take one game at a time and realize that we can't take a day off. We've had sprained ankles, concussions, you name it, but we have to just keep pressing. Confidence can be the edge that we have and I think the girls are gaining it all the time as they're putting in the work."