By JOHN SCHWARB
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2001
As the practice trudged into its third hour on a holiday morning, Nick Vandewalle could not have cared less.
"We're going to be here as long as it takes," the coach barked to his girls while they struggled through fast-break drills. "We can do better."
Sure enough, the team picked up the pace and closed the practice strong before taking the rest of Martin Luther King Jr. Day off.
That brief moment of ineptitude has been about all St. Petersburg Catholic has done wrong on the basketball court lately. With the scoreboard on and another team present, the Barons have left little to chance.
SPC, ranked sixth in Class 3A, is 17-1 and riding an 11-game winning streak.
"We just have a feel," senior Catherine DuPont said. "Everyone knows each other and how they play."
Though the team graduated four seniors and at times has put heavy responsibility on the shoulders of sophomores, SPC is on pace to better last season's 30-4 record and possibly return to the state title game for the second consecutive year.
"If we hit our stride, this year's team has a better chance of winning it all," said Vandewalle, insisting that even at 17-1, the team can get better.
Senior guards Virginia Foster and Becky Tapp, reserves a year ago, have stepped in as leaders and keys to the team's success. Foster is the assist leader, averaging just under five per game, and Tapp is the team's second-leading rebounder. Both average close to 10 points per game.
And most important, both have beautifully complemented the 6-foot-3 DuPont, a first-team All-County selection a year ago who is once again having her way in the paint. "We doubled-down on her and held her to 10 points in the first half," said Clearwater Central Catholic coach Phil McGee, who saw far too much of her last week in a 60-35 loss.
"Then in the second half, she came back and went absolutely ballistic. We couldn't stop her."
DuPont scored 20 points in the second half compared to 14 for the Marauders combined. Such performances are the norm for the senior, who is averaging 20.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
But regular-season feats aside -- the Barons could finish 22-1 before districts and appear to be a lock for the top seed in the Class 3A, District 11 tournament -- this team, for better or worse, will be measured by its success in the playoffs. SPC has improved in the playoffs in each of the last three years, and only one more step remains.
"We need a legacy," Foster said.
"There's no other place to go but state champions this year."