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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Tampa Prep gets fourth shot at ending nemesis' domination at state tournament.
By SCOTT PURKS
Published February 27, 2007
TAMPA - Thursday afternoon at the Lakeland Center, Port St. Joe will run into a Class 2A semifinal wearing its dreaded, some might say dreadful, socks.
Pulled to the knees, striped in gold and purple rings, the socks will make some from opposing Tampa Prep feel a little sick.
"I've had nightmares about those socks," Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon said. "I'm not kidding. ...Those socks running up and down the floor."
Running, harassing, beating Tampa Prep all three times the teams have played - 1997, '98 and '99. Which also happens to be the only times the Terrapins have reached the final four in Lakeland.
"All painful," Fenlon said.
Fenlon said that in each of those years his team had more talent (including 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American Casey Sanders) than Port St. Joe.
"We really should have won all of them," Fenlon said. "But ...we didn't."
Every year, Port St. Joe featured a frantic man-to-man defense, no player with major Division I talent or taller than 6-3.
Every year, the games were tight until the end: 47-43 in the '97 final; 74-64 in the '98 semifinal; 44-37 in the '99 final.
And every year, Fenlon's son, Conner, couldn't help but cry.
"I was young (6 to 8 years old), but I remember my father took it so hard," said Conner, a junior starting guard who was a Terrapins water boy at the time. "Dad didn't talk about it a lot, but you could see it really bothered him. He wanted to win so much for the school and the team."
Both Fenlons, as well as Port St. Joe coach Derek Kurnitsky, said the current players don't care about what happened in 1997-99.
They did acknowledge, however, a Port St. Joe mystique.
Fact is, the Tiger Sharks, playing for their tiny town of 3,500 an hour east of Panama City, have won eight state titles and are in contention for a crown just about every year.
Vernon Eppinette, who led them to five state titles in six years before retiring in 2000, may not be there. But, Kurnitsky said, the tradition is strong.
"There are people around here who haven't missed a Port St. Joe game in 40 years," said Kurnitsky, in his third year. "It's tradition in the purest sense."
Witness the socks.
Kurnitsky said he broke them out for Saturday's region final, surprising his team just before they ran onto the floor.
"They had no idea, and when I handed them out they went crazy," Kurnitsky said. "Man, they were ready to play after that. Those socks are like magic dust."
That night, Port St. Joe, which started the district playoffs with an 11-14 record after playing a brutal schedule, went on to win 47-38 over West Gadsden.
Meanwhile, in Naples, Tampa Prep (25-6) was holding Community School to one fourth-quarter point en route to a 45-35 victory.
And now they meet again in another state semifinal: Port St. Joe running an up-tempo game against a deliberate Tampa Prep squad led by two college-bound post players, 6-foot-6 senior Walter Perkins (who averages 16 points a game) and 6-5 junior David Waller (14 ppg).
"When people saw that Port St. Joe won, the e-mails started rolling in," Fenlon said.
"A lot of those former players were wishing us luck, saying it was great we'd get another shot at 'The Cat in the Hats.' "
And those dreaded socks.
Class 2A semifinal
Thursday: Tampa Prep vs. Port St. Joe, 11:30 a.m.
Where: The Lakeland Center
Tickets: $9 per session; parking is $5.
Directions: Take Interstate 275 East to Interstate 4 East to exit 31 (Kathleen Road). Turn right on Kathleen Road and continue to Sikes Boulevard. Bear right at the yield sign and turn right at the second traffic light (Lime Street). The Lakeland Center will be on the right.