PALM HARBOR – It is all about hard work. Put the work in, and you will reap the rewards. That is what the coach of the Palm Harbor University High School girls basketball team preaches to his athletes, and they are obviously listening.
Darian Dublin is that coach, and he’s been coaching the team for the past nine years, and the program has been successful.
Two years ago, the team went 23-4, last year it was 19-9, and this year it finished 23-3, which are remarkable records for any team in any sport.
“It is all about reloading,” said Dublin. “Our junior varsity team went undefeated this season with all freshmen on the team. Nobody wants to have a rebuilding year. Everybody wants to win now. My job is to build them a program, and we’ve done that. We are the number one program in the county.”
Dublin, like most coaches, says the secret to success is having the right players and the right chemistry, and he has it in Palm Harbor.
“It is a mixture of having the players and a good coaching staff. You are only as good as your assistants,” he said. “Work hard and you will see the rewards, and these girls work hard in the off-season. They kept playing in various leagues and got with people to do general training. They came prepared.”
Dublin, who has coached both boys and girls in his career, says there is a big difference in the two. He’d rather coach girls.
“The biggest thing is the boys watch TV and they see the pros and they think they are like Jordan or Kobe or Lebron. They think they know it all,” he said.
On the other hand, he said girls listen better and are easier to coach.
“They want to do it the right way,” he said. “You aren’t going to see the girls dunking like the boys. To me, girls play harder; the boys are quicker and faster, but the girls play harder. The girls will run a play the way it was designed, even to a fault. If they happen to get a free run to the basket, they won’t take it because that isn’t the way the play was designed. Boys will wait for that opportunity.”
The team has only two graduating seniors this year. One of them, 18-year-old Amber Jennings, transferred from East Lake High School to play for Palm Harbor.
“I knew I would be surrounded by a great group of players,” she said. “The other teams know we are good. We’re motivated to be successful. We have good conditions here; we put in a lot of practice. We have good chemistry and operate as a family. It is a family-oriented style.”
Jennings, who is being recruited by a variety of college basketball programs, isn’t sure where she might be headed in the fall. She still has to make that decision, but says she has learned a lot by being on the Palm Harbor team.
“Just because we are females doesn’t mean we can’t do something as good as anyone,” she said. “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Jennings noted that she leaves the team with two banners, one for being district champions and the other for leading the Pinellas County Athletic Conference.
“This has been the best season of my career, I’ve been playing since I was 10. That’s a long time,” she said.
The other graduating senior is Kaylin Ingram, also 18. She’s headed to the University of Florida in the fall. Her brother, Tim, is a sophomore there, and she says she’s excited to be joining him.
Ingram expects to play basketball, just not varsity, because she says theirs is a strong team.
“But you never know,” she added.
Her time at Palm Harbor is something she will never forget.
“It has really been a blessing, I’ve never been on a bad team,” she said. “The chemistry is what makes us tick, on and off the court, we are all friends. We get along as good as any other team.”
Ingram credits her basketball career to her mother, who was a pioneer of sorts before Title 9 was ever heard of.
“When she was in middle school, my mom started a girls’ basketball team,” she said. “She managed to get the team started but then got cut so she became a cheerleader. But because of her and people like her, my sisters and me have been able to benefit. We don’t even realize what women have had to do so we can be on a team like this. A lot of people take this for granted.”
Ingram says now that the basketball season is over, she’ll turn her attention to the track team – something she says is a lot of fun but different.
As for her high school basketball days now behind her, Ingram says it is a little sad.
“It is bittersweet, but I have no regrets,” she said. “It will be sad to leave, but it will be fun to watch the team grow in the future.”
Ingram’s two sisters, Megan, a junior, and Julia, a freshman, will both be on the team next year. She leaves them with some advice.
“You can get better by playing with the boys from time to time, but retain your femininity,” she said. “You can be a smart, athletic girl and you don’t have to change. You don’t have to be stereotyped. You change the sport, don’t let the sport change you.”
Despite their No. 1 state ranking, the Palm Harbor University girls lost in the regional finals to St. Petersburg High, which meant they didn’t get to go to the state tournament. That doesn’t matter to Dublin.
“I’m proud of every one of these girls,” he said. “One thing about these girls, especially at Palm Harbor, is they all get along. There is no drama; nothing affects the team or the game. Every time I step on the court, I’m proud just to see them compete.”
Then, as coaches all want to do, he couldn’t help but leave some parting advice.
“The one time you don’t compete, you will end up losing. The tougher the team, the better you become,” he said. “It is all about competing. It is all about leaving it all out on the floor and having fun playing the game.”