It's tough getting attached to a team like this.
Even if you aren't a sports fan you have to be emotionally barren — or attached to St. Thomas Aquinas — to not root hard for St. Cloud's girls basketball team last weekend at the Class 8A state tournament.
STA is Broward County's private Catholic high school — think of a South Florida Bishop Moore — and athletically akin to the New England Patriots. By my count, Aquinas has knocked Osceola County schools out of a state tournament six times across three sports. I'm Catholic, I understand that school's mission but ... c'mon already!
The Bulldogs lost to the Aquinas machine that competes against the state's Class 8A schools even though its enrollment zone stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver. It hand picks its talent; Raiders' Coach Oliver Berens even admitted it in the press conference after the game in which two of Aquinas' starters transferred in this season.
"We're a team that hasn't played much together prior to the season," he said.
Why large-market private schools can play for state titles alongside public schools with rigid attendance zones is a topic for another column on another day, lest this one take an unintended tone.
St. Cloud is flip side of St. Thomas Aquinas. If the Raiders were bought, the Bulldogs were built.
From the ground up. Explains the dirt under their fingernails.
Leading up to the state tournament, I noted that while St. Cloud earned a Final Four bid with a district championship and three regional playoff wins, the Bulldogs weren't one of the four best Class 8A teams on paper. Paper can show what you've done but does a lousy job portraying how you did it.
How did St. Cloud get to the state tournament? It didn't start in November when the season started. It started years ago, when most of the players on this team started working with Coach Chad Ansbaugh in youth league ball. He can't coach a kid to be six feet tall, but he'll spit-polish their bounce pass, shooting and defensive tenacity.
"We don't have freakish basketball athletes on our campus. We have rugrats," Ansbaugh said after Friday's game. "You see our girls. We recruit kids from P.E. classes and the cafeteria. We have a couple girls who play year-long, but all our girls play varsity in another sport. I bet there isn't another team here this week that can say that."
Bailey Ansbaugh, Chad's daughter and a graduating senior, is a lifelong gym rat. At 5-7, it's how she became a varsity starter. That work ethic spread to a team of Baileys on a roster with just one physically imposing player.
Deep down, I'd bet Chad secretly wishes a parade of gifted athletes will walk into his gym. But instead of holding his breath waiting, he'll blow out of his whistle at a soon upcoming practice or open gym trying to make those who do walk in better.
Ansbaugh, "born on a dirt road in St. Cloud", prefers it that way. I've seen him become the kind of coach cut from the cloth of the legendary, gone-too-soon Tim McMullen.
Know this: "Coach Mac" was in the building Friday, looking down on just another "Scrappy Dog" team, although this one had the success he and Ansbaugh knew could be possible with the right type of "St. Cloud kids" if they came together.
Kids like Bailey, who's been in the tough spot of playing for Dad.
"I've played since my freshman year and I've never been with a group of girls who are as compassionate about basketball, and each other," she said Friday. "Being here (in Lakeland) is prayers come true. I know a lot of teams say, 'We're family,' but we really are."
Coach Chad showed it when talking about Mac after Friday's game. He broke down a little describing the Looney Tunes tie he was wearing.
"He gave me this tie and It's the dumbest tie on Earth, but I had to wear it (Friday) for him," he said. "All the right stuff I do is because of Mac. I learned watching him."
Meanwhile, St. Thomas Aquinas lost to another physically-gifted team, Tampa Bay Tech ("They're bigger than our boys team," Ansbaugh said during the week), for the state title Saturday. Surely this winter it'll assemble another roster of freakish basketball athletes who have an AAU pedigree from places near and far.
In St. Cloud, the pedigree is all Bulldog.
"It ain't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."
Mac said it.
Ansbaugh lives it.
If you think these fighting 'Dogs deserved better, you believe it.