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Thursday, February 4, 2016

From near extinction to district champions

Some high school sports teams are never destined for success. Why? Because you need a whole bunch of things to happen for a team to turn from a floor mat to show stopper.

One of those things is coaching. Good coaches can make teams better. Great coaches can make their teams believe they can win championships.

That seemed to be the thing that was lacking with the Crescent City Junior-Senior High School girls basketball team in the first few years I was a writer at the Palatka Daily News. In the first three years I was there, the program had gone through three coaches and had combined for a record of 20-29. Now how are you supposed to get better when your coaches don't stick around? A conundrum to say the least. And though the 20 wins looked nice on the outside, a lot of those victories were coming against schools that had even less in talent than the Raiders had.

Still, this was a team that was building up to something good in the 2006-07 season. There were three seniors who had gutted it out for those three years in Raider uniforms – senior forward-center Kayla Strickland, guard-forward Donshitessa Banks and the leader of that group, guard LaToya Scott, whose brother, Walter Curry, was a standout football player at Crescent City, then again in college at Albany State in Georgia, where he was a Division II All-American and spent time with the San Francisco 49ers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where I got to do a story on him in 2010 in his effort to try to make the team (he didn't and unfortunately that was his last opportunity to latch on to an NFL team).

This team had talent. They also had some nice players on the younger level. One of those players was a "project" in 5-foot-11 seventh-grade center Kayshia Brady. She may have been 5-11 in real life, but with a large arm span, she could play like a girl about 6-foot-7. But she was raw ... very raw. And 13-year-olds need constructive guidance to believe they can go to that next level.

She was about to be part of the varsity team because Crescent City housed both middle schoolers and high schoolers, allowing middle schoolers to play with the high schoolers, a decision that had been made a decade before when seventh- and eighth-graders were allowed to come to Crescent City.

The team was set for maybe a very good season. Nobody knew, really. But there was one missing factor.

A coach.

The previous coach made the decision to not return for the next year.  And no one was running to the athletic director's office to apply for the job. June became July. July became August. August became September. And before September could turn to October, a decision was needed to be made.

Will the program stay or will it go into extinction, at least for the year? To this day, I can not believe that the program would have gone away and the seniors who were devoted to the team in spite of losing records would have had nowhere to go in their senior years.

That's when the "savior" came along. All they had to do was find her in the gymnasium coaching the volleyball team.

But in this case, Holly Pickens knew the program. Well, maybe not up-to-the-second knowing it, but she had two stints as the Raiders' coach, winning a district championship in the 1984-85 season and getting the team to the state tournament two straight years, and then again in the 1990s, she coached the team for a few years.

More importantly, though, Coach P was about the school and not allowing a program to go under, especially one she had ties to. She took the job.

And right off the bat, things began to turn around with the team. The regular losing was over and the players grateful to play that season thanks to a positive influence on them and the program were responding. Before long, the Raiders were building a nice season under Pickens. They finished the district regular season with a mark of 9-1, the only loss coming to Keystone Heights and head coach Mike Ruszkowski, the former Palatka High girls coach and all-around super guy. The Indians were also 9-1 in district play.

It came down to a coin toss for who would get the first seed since all the other tiebreakers had been exausted. This was crucial. If the Raiders lost the coin toss, they would be the second seed in the upcoming District 6-3A tournament held at new school Palm Coast Matanzas High. That would relegate the Raiders to a likely semifinal matchup with a tough and frustrating, third-seeded Union County team from Lake Butler. A correct call of the coin would give the Raiders the top seed and have them face either the host and first-year Matanzas Pirates or regional rival Pierson Taylor High, neither team very good that season.

It is uncertain who made the call, but when the coin came down, it landed in Crescent City's favor.

Imagine that – from a doormat to the top seed in a district tournament and almost a certainty that the program would win the semifinal matchup and make the state tournament for the first time since 1986.

And Crescent City prevailed in its semifinal rather easily, handing Matanzas a 36-17 loss to improve to 12-4 on the season as Scott outscored the Pirates herself with 19 points and Brady had seven points, seven blocked shots and 14 rebounds.

This caused a bit of a problem, but I also knew that if my boss needed me to go somewhere, I'd gladly go, especially a championship. After all, I had tickets the next Saturday night in Tallahassee for my friend Arrii and I to see Jimmy Buffett in concert. I wasn't giving those up, so if one of our county boys basketball teams made the final, he covered for me – and would do so as Interlachen beat Crescent City for the District 6-3A championship at Crescent City.

He wanted to see Palatka's girls play for a district championship that Saturday night, February 3, 2007, at Clay High School against St. Augustine High. Told him I had no problem going to Matanzas High to see Crescent City face off with third seed Union County, which sprung the upset on Keystone Heights in the other semifinal, 39-31. (See! This is why that coin toss was extremely important!)

But I had two issues before going to the game on that Saturday night. The first issue was I was heading to Disney World the next day (which, oh by the way, was Super Bowl Sunday as the Colts faced off with the Bears that evening) with my friend Ginny, who I had to pick up at her home in Orange Park, drive across the Buckman Bridge on I-295 down to I-95 and then 75 miles to Daytona Beach to the Suburban Lodge Hotel we were staying in that night. By the time we got there in my Toyota Corolla and checked in, it was 6:25 p.m. and it was a quick goodbye back out the door and back up I-95 another 36 miles to Palm Coast to find a school I had never been to before.

All I knew was the exit I had to get off of (Exit 298) and it turns out in the end, I could have gotten off at the exit before that at Exit 289 and taken one road a few miles up until I hit the school. That most likely would have saved about 10 minutes on my trip. By the time I got off at the exit, I was on US-1 heading south this time. This north/south/north driving was making me insane.

By the time I found the school I was to go to, I had gone a good eight miles out of my way. But as the grey clouds thickened up on this late February evening, the only thing missing as I approached this school way in the distance standing beside itself was lightning and thunder, followed by that evil organ music that accompanies it. I felt like I was driving the Scooby-Doo mystery van.

Somehow I figured I got close to where the gymnasium was located and parked beside some other cars that were in the lot near me. I found the right door and by the time I walked in at 7:15 p.m., there was 5:13 left to play in the first quarter and Crescent City was already leading 6-2. Eventually, I would catch up to what I needed to collect, and I would be able to seek out someone at least on Crescent City's side who was doing stats for the game and pick up on rebounds, steals and blocked shots.

The gym looked as if it was just built a month or so earlier. I had not seen lights this bright in a gymnasium in a long, long time.

By the time I had caught up, the Raiders had built a 9-3 lead with 3:11 left in the first quarter. Turns out this would be the biggest lead of the night. As the game wore on and I had finally caught up on the early points of the game, the teams would swap the lead 11 times.

Yes, 11 times! I was preparing for what could be a long night and an overtime or two. The Raiders held an 18-14 lead at halftime, but the Tigers, who had two capable scorers in Amber Franzlubers and Miranda Kent, didn't back down. By the end of the third quarter, the Tigers had the lead 30-27, just eight minutes from the title.

The Raiders battled back and tied the game at 33-all with just under four minutes to go on a basket by Strickland, a big body in the middle who was enforcer down low.

On the next possession, the Tigers turned the ball over. This would be a trend for late in the game not just for the Tigers, but for the Raiders as well. It was a close game, but it was also a sloppy one, too.

So the Raiders bring the ball up the court and the ball finds Scott's hands. She saw her defender in front of her and thought she could dribble toward the base line and take a shot. To this day, I am pretty sure that she did not count her steps to where she needed to be correctly and with that defender still on top of her, she threw a shot up toward the basket.

And to this day, I still have no idea how that ball landed in the basket. Scott threw up what looked like nothing more than a prayer. The ball hit the upper right-hand corner of the backboard and for some reason, it had enough spin to come downward toward the basket. It fell through ... and for a 3-point field goal, no less.

Seriously! You couldn't take that shot in a horse game and hit it the way LaToya Scott put it up. To this very day, Holly Pickens still can't believe the ball found the hoop. Then again, maybe someone was smiling down on her for taking over this program.

Back the other way came the Tigers. They missed and Brady rebounded. Then the Raiders came down and missed and Franzlubbers would rebound. With under a minute to go, it was still 36-33 in Crescent City's favor. Now I'm sitting in the stands just not even believing that this impossible 3-point shot with 3:11 to go in the game was going to be it – no more scoring! Nothing! Someone had to do something, right?

With 33.2 seconds left, Banks was fouled. The Tigers were over the limit in fouls and so Banks had a one-and-one free-throw situation. Banks calmly nailed the first free throw to make it a four-point lead. But the second free throw missed, Franzlubbers went up for the rebound and got fouled by Brady.

Oh, boy, seventh-grade jitters! This team came so far and now, fouls were going to decide if they walked out of this gymnasium winners or not. One second had come off the clock, so with 31.9 seconds left, Franzlubbers sank both free throws to make it 37-35.

And the seventh-grader was about to make it worse. With 23.6 seconds left, Brady turned the ball over.

Nooooooooooooooooo! Suddenly, my hands found the back of my head in a folded manner in worry for the team I was covering. Union County called timeout and set up a play. It was going to Kent, a sharp-shooting guard. The ball got to Kent and she fired.

It was off the mark. The Raiders dodged a bullet when Strickland came up with the rebound. But as soon as she got a hold of the ball to secure it, so, too, did Union County's Ashley Clemmons. The official blew the whistle for the held-ball possession.

The arrow was pointing in Union County's favor with 11 seconds left to go.

When is this going to end!? That was probably what Pickens was feeling. The veteran coach had just turned 47 in November, but was feeling inside like she was 74. Union County called a timeout and came up with a play. It was designed to go again to Kent. She was their bread-and-butter standout from the outside.

From watching what would happen next, the play was designed for Kent to find an opening and take a shot. Apparently, Pickens knew what was going to happen.

So off the inbound pass, Kent received the ball. She saw spots she could dribble to, but as soon as she headed toward them, Raider defenders were coming out to meet her. There was no way they were allowing her to beat them. Kent had 16 points for the game and Franzlubbers, guarded well by Banks, had 15 points. The rest of the team – four points.

So with six seconds left, Kent passed the ball off to diminutive point guard Ashli Watson. Watson received the pass somewhere at the top of the key in no man's land for guards. But once she got the ball, she was determined to take it to the hole and tie the game.

She, though, had one obstacle in her way – Kayshia Brady. As Watson put her shot up, Brady stuck her left hand up at the same time.

Pickens couldn't look. She had seen her "project" commit numerous fouls that season and she pretty much thought it was going to happen again. But as the buzzer sounded, there was not another sound to accompany it.

No official's whistle. Suddenly, Crescent City players began running furiously back toward Pickens and their Raider teammates. The coach turned back and realized that her seventh-grade "project" had just blocked Watson's shot cleanly, sending the tying shot away.

Players jumped on each other, but in one of the greatest celebration moments I have ever witnessed in all my years, LaToya Scott went sprawling to the floor, back on the ground ... creating make-believe snow angels.

Crescent City 37, Union County 35. District 6-3A champions.

Even Hollywood producers would have a hard time believing this stuff really happened. Seriously! This is the make-believe world, but in this case, it was real. The team that wasn't supposed to be playing was now about to claim a trophy it had not won in 22 years in the sport. The seniors got to collect the trophy from Matanzas' athletic director and proudly paraded it toward to the Raiders' rooting section where they got to cheer the spoils the team just picked up.

Holly Pickens was somewhere between proud and tears. I couldn't tell which. I reminded her that this championship would not have existed had she not taken the job. She answered back, "If all it took was returning as basketball coach, I would've done it long ago. I can't even express in words how I feel. I am so proud of the way the girls played their tails off."

And they had to. Every last point was going to matter in this battle of attrition between two defensive-minded teams that got sloppy, but gave the fans there that Saturday night a classic.

"I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I'd be holding this (the trophy)," Scott said near tears.

Scott finished with a team-high 15 points. Strickland ended up with 10. And as for Kayshia Brady, she didn't have a bad game either – seven points, three blocks and 20 rebounds. Yes ... 20 rebounds. That night, a star was born on that Matanzas court and the 13-year-old would continue to dominate in the sport, earning our paper's girls basketball player of the year honor two times, volleyball player of the year in the county three times and female track athlete of the year three more times. Brady went on to a stellar four-year college volleyball career at Florida Southern University in Lakeland. To this day, she and the great Christie Pearce Rampone are the two best female athletes I ever got to cover in my 30-plus years in the business.

The run the Raiders had in their season came to a quick end in the next game when they lost their state tournament opener at home to Newberry, 42-37, in a game they should have won if not for the 46 missed shots and 34 turnovers they committed that night.

The season ended with the Raiders going 13-5, their most successful in a generation. Not bad for a program that was about to be shut down that year. Pickens would go on to coach the Raiders for two more years before giving it up to her assistant coach, Steve Cummings. The program has made the state tournament as a district runner-up over the years, but has not won a district championship since that night nine years ago.

As for myself, I couldn't wait to get back to Daytona Beach to the hotel to type in the story on my new laptop that I gotten the previous October. It was all still fresh in my mind and I didn't want it to go stale. Ginny had ordered Chinese food from a place nearby and with the hotel room equipped with a stove and a microwave, I had the leftovers from what she had ordered that night, which was great since I had not eaten for hours.

The next day, we headed out to Disney World, enjoyed the day at Epcot and I took her home that night. It would be the last time I spent a day at Disney World. We listened to the Super Bowl on the way back into Putnam County that evening and by about 7:30, I had gotten her home and I was heading back from Orange Park to my place, but spent the last part of the game eating at the Palatka Beef O'Brady's near where I lived.

And the memory of that basketball game still lingers to this day. Whenever I hear about a program packing up for a year in Putnam County, I always hope it's not true. Because somewhere, there's a coach who can step in and make something amazing happen for a group of boys or girls hungry to do great things.

It did happen one winter. It happened in the most dramatic of ways.

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