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Coaching Land O'Lakes a "dream'

Davis Puhalski was born Oct. 3, 1962 in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he was raised. He was a "highly, highly, highly average" point guard "on a highly average team," the Fighting Wolverines of Godwin Heights High School, where he played for Michigan Hall of Fame coach Gene Nynehuis. He graduated from the University of South Florida in 1985 and was a graduate assistant coach on the bench at the University of Tampa in the '85-86 season. He was an assistant coach at Ocala Vanguard for three years before taking the head coaching job at Land O'Lakes in '89. The past two seasons Puhalski has compiled 27-4 and 28-3 seasons, winning his first two district and conference titles. He and wife Erika have two children, Kenzie Leigh, 5, and David, 2. Puhalski's record is 181-160.

JT: Land O'Lakes has gone 55-7 the past two seasons, won two district and two conference titles, and has won 30-consecutive games against Pasco County. What's it like coaching a group that only comes around every 10 years?

DP: Once in a lifetime, you mean. I've been coaching for years, and it's been really nice. You get to work on a lot of other things in practice you wouldn't get to work on with other kids. Fundamentally, these kids are pretty sound, and we've never had any internal bickering, no one ever cared who the star was. It's been a freaking dream, not a nightmare. From the first guy to the last guy everyone was focused on what we've been trying to accomplish. It's been very easy. I've had great players before, but never (a team) that was this unselfish, that was this goal-oriented, and that just went out there and kept that mind-set. I'm not even talking about records. We didn't talk about records. We didn't talk about this year or last year. We set the goals on another conference championship and another district title.

JT: It seems like after you've beaten a team in the county, there's not many hard feelings. Why is that?

DP: I think that's just because the kids work so hard. Everyone worked hard and they played together. So you stop one guy, so Jeff (Baisley) has a bad night and Ryan (Van Blarcom) has a bad night, so what? Another kid steps up. Everybody had their roles, and I think other teams and coaches respected that. I think they let their playing do the talking, there was no real trash talking. They just went out there and played together and they just go out there and let their ability, their actions, their hard work, speak for them.

JT: What's up with your team and East Lake?

DP: Every team is striving for the same thing. When you're pretty close to winning a district championship, there's gonna be some heat out there. But for some reason, it just got ugly (between Land O'Lakes and East Lake). When it was over here, it wasn't as bad as over there. For some reason, whether it was the officiating or whatever, it was a lot uglier over there.

JT: Have you ever had the cops called in after a game (as in last season's road loss to East Lake, Land O'Lakes' only district loss in two years)?

DP: When I was an assistant at Vanguard there were cops there all the time. There was a shooting outside the gym one year. It was like a regular year of basketball to me. It was nice to see the emotions get that high and yet no one was going to let it get out of hand. It just seemed us and East Lake were always battling each other for the district title, and I think it was a county thing too. We wanted to win it all for Pasco County, to prove Pasco County can compete with Pinellas County.

JT: What has been most rewarding about the past two seasons?

DP: The district championship was the most rewarding, I think. This year it was kind of anticlimactic, because we played Ridgewood in the semifinals and we thought that would be a finals game, and we wanted to play East Lake in the finals (which was upset by Palm Harbor U.), but that didn't happen. I think the 30-0 run, I think that was brilliant.

JT: What disappointed you most about the past two seasons?

DP: Not winning a playoff game, not advancing, especially this year was kind of a bigger letdown. We were a better team this year and we were capable of beating (Countryside) most any other night, but we didn't get the job done. It's hard to say. If I knew what it was I would have corrected it before the game. It was a combination of not shooting well and they had a good, decent kid in the middle, and we didn't have an answer for him, and he played really well. They played better than we did. We were watching Belleview go to the finals, a team we beat by 20 on their home floor, and I realized you have to play well this time of year.

JT: What should people know about this team?

DP: It's just a fun group. I've never had any disciplinary problems. I've never had to suspend anyone for a game, never had anyone miss a bus. It's just been a freaking dream, extracurricular-wise. Student-wise? I don't think there's a kid below a 2.5 (grade point average). I don't think people know how smart these kids were in the classroom, and that made it easier on the floor, explaining things, teaching things.

JT: Why in the world are you still yelling at the officials when you're up by, say, 40?

DP: I'll tell you why. These refs tell me that because we're up by so much we're not going to get that call. All I ask of them is that the officials are consistent, whether it's a good call or a bad call, and all of a sudden they're going to admit to me that they're not going to call something because we're too far ahead? That's not consistent to me. They told me that four or five times, "You're up by 40."