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From groom to gloom

The summer was a promising time for Dunedin coach Bob Beckman. After finishing one of the best seasons in school history that culminated in a top-20 state ranking, he couldn't wait to get back on the hardwood.

The Falcons (20-6) finished second in Class 5A, District 9 to eventual state runner-up Clearwater and had a host of up-and-coming talents ready to compliment a few established players. But as the first day of school drew nearer, Dunedin fell further behind its goals.

On top of losing key players to graduation, the Falcons lost out to grades, apathy and pregnancy. But the one parasite that gave Beckman the biggest headache was the FHSAA's new bylaw that allows athletes to transfer without losing eligibility.

When would-be third-year starting guard Ruth Hammond left for Clearwater, that topped Beckman's personal losing streak and created a horror story at Dunedin.

Junior standout Tina Gillems is the lone starter back for the Falcons. Seniors Heather Poekert and Amy Beckman, Bob's daughter, both played in 20 of the Falcons' 26 games but combined for 151 points in limited action. Hammond had 168 points.

"I spent the summer motivated and excited about the 11 players I had and now I'd be lucky to field enough for a card game," Beckman said. "It makes me mad. I feel yucky."

The feeling stems from an apparent talent disparity in Pinellas County where teams are seemingly headed for dominance or weakness. Beckman and other coaches feel there is little room for any gray area.

"We were on the edge," Beckman said. "We had a lot of potential and now we don't. We would have been able to compete with Clearwater. All of a sudden Clearwater has an all-star team."

Clearwater has won the district three of the past four years and has added three transfers to an already promising list of newcomers that includes sophomore Vanessa Adams and freshmen Emily McDaniel and Natalie Wilkinson. Three-year Tarpon Springs player Angie Koulianos bolted to Clearwater after leading the Class 5A, District 7 champion Spongers to an 18-9 season. And Northside Christian's top reserve Alison O'Brien also joined the roster after a Class 2A state final four appearance.

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," said East Lake's first-year coach Joe O'Neill, who inherits a 7-16 squad. "As it plays out, good players on not so good teams will look to go to better programs. The programs that are already established have a head start on the ladder."

Northside Christian coach Dean Soles thinks the days of average teams are gone.

"Eventually some programs will get stronger and some will get weaker," he said.

Although that trend might become more evident with public schools, it doesn't seem to be happening at private schools. The Mustangs advanced to the state final four along with Keswick Christian last year. Clearwater Central Catholic (23-6) and Indian Rocks Christian (25-5) also fielded strong programs. St. Petersburg Catholic (6-22) struggled with a starting lineup loaded with underclassmen, but the Barons figure to be much improved.

CCC coach Phil McGee said he sees "girls jockied by parents" to get them in the best programs but that outside of O'Brien leaving Northside, he doesn't see much change from Class 3A down.

Soles agrees.

"From what I've seen, it should be like it has been," Soles said.