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Trio of coaches learning the ropes

His past two months had been a blur, one loss blending into another, a far busier challenge than he had imagined his first year as a varsity head basketball coach would be.

But Gary Allen sat back Wednesday night and took a minute to watch his River Ridge players celebrate their first victory, a 54-42 win against Zephyrhills, one that was 18 games in the making.

"Somebody said to me, "It looks like you won the NCAA finals," said Allen, 46, a longtime assistant and junior varsity coach. "This was obviously a rebuilding position this season, but I think there has been great progress. We've actually played better against better teams, and (Wednesday), we didn't play a real good game, but you forget about that when you finally get a win."

Allen is one of three county coaches in their first year as a head coach, each facing different challenges in different situations. Allen said he'll remember this first season not for its frustrating record, but for the way his players _ every one of them _ have persevered and stuck together through each loss.

"I'm very proud of the fact that none of them have quit," Allen said. "Every coach has said they've been better the second time around. It may not show up in wins and losses, but they've gotten better. It puts some merit into the thought that you might be doing things right. We're small, we're inexperienced, but those are the cards we were dealt."

Allen has been coaching for more than a decade, but the county's other two rookies _ Mitchell's Andy Schmitz, 24, and Hudson's Jason Vetter, 27 _ took their jobs with next to no coaching experience. Schmitz was the Mustangs' JV coach last year, and Vetter coached one year at Walker Middle School in Tampa. Both sought advice from the veteran coaches around them entering their first season with a team of their own.

Schmitz, whose father, Scott, is the Mustangs' head football coach, said the transition is easier because he grew up in a family of coaches. His uncle, Mike, was a high school basketball coach in Illinois. Given his age, the best advice he got was to establish his authority quickly, something made easier by a mature and accepting group of players.

"The one thing my dad and (Mitchell athletic director Ian Mooney) said was just to remember you're the one in charge," said Schmitz, whose team is 9-8 and likely to make the playoffs in a light three-team district. "Even if you question yourself, make a decision and go with it. Make sure everybody knows that you're the one in charge of your team."

Schmitz's assistants, Andrew Maggio and Jeff Ford, are also in their early 20s, and a young staff has worked that much harder to keep up with more experienced coaches they go up against.

"We were playing Jesuit, and they came out in a diamond-and-one defense against us," Schmitz said. "I figured it out, but it took me a few minutes to figure the best offense for it. There's always going to be situations I haven't seen before, but I'm learning as I go."

One thing that's made Schmitz' season easier is not having to deal with discipline problems, something that has made Vetter's first season at Hudson more difficult than he anticipated.

"I didn't know it would be this tough," said Vetter, whose only win in 19 games came against River Ridge. "The Xs and Os I expected, learning new drills, that kind of thing, but the player turnover and cleaning up some of the problems was unexpected."

Vetter lost three seniors to academic ineligibility, had another player transfer out, then he dismissed two players before the season started. Since then, another quit, and last week, he dismissed two sophomore starters for "continually breaking team rules."

The cuts might have cost him a few wins, but were an important part of establishing standards for his program. His best advice came from Panama City Bay coach Rob Williams, who inherited a five-win team and molded it into a state semifinalist.

"He told me something early on," Vetter said. " "Whatever you let happen this year, you'll deal with it the whole time you're there.' So if I let these kids get away with something, they'll always think they can get away with it."

The obvious challenges of being a new coach _ knowing when to substitute, what adjustments to make, when to call timeouts _ can be learned by sheer experience. What surprised Allen, for instance, were the peripheral duties that go with running a varsity program.

"You worry about coaching, but you have a million other things to do," he said. "It can make you hate home games. You have to coordinate concession stands, who's going to run the video camera. You need people to run the scoreboard, someone to sing the national anthem. Some of the biggest things are what go on outside of coaching."

For Schmitz, the age difference was a personal hurdle to clear in establishing himself as a coach. He has known Ridgewood coach Gary Anders since he was seven, and played against a few county coaches when he attended River Ridge. To think of himself as a peer, as a rival, to coaches he has long respected has taken some adjusting.

"It was a little weird at first, coaching against coaches I played against," Schmitz said. "But they've all been great as far as making me feel comfortable, and I've never felt like anyone has looked down at me. They've made it a pretty cool experience."

Besides the inexperience, the three coaches share a common optimism. Two of Vetter's remaining games are against Zephyrhills and River Ridge, both games he'll enter with reasonable hopes of winning despite his depleted roster. All season, he's mapped out his practices, outlining what drills he wants to squeeze in, and he said the two practices since his last dismissals were the first two all season in which he's checked off everything on his list.

"The kids I have now are good character kids, and they get along," he said. "I think I have a good group of freshmen, and the biggest thing, by doing this, is that they know they have to be dedicated and have to work if they want to play. I think it's only going to get better because of that."