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Packers' road trip rankles

If he were the dramatic type, I could imagine Largo coach Phil Price taking his team out to the Pinellas Park floor tonight, pulling out a tape measure and showing the Packers the goal is still 10 feet high and the length and width of the court are the same as back home.

Hey, it worked in the movies.

But this is not Hinkle Fieldhouse, and Price is no Gene Hackman, though the current situation has him just as ornery as the coach Hackman played in Hoosiers.

The Packers, the No. 1 team in the state, winners of 20 straight and perfect on their own floor this season, will leave home for a 7-mile trip that does not sit well with Price and many of his coaching brethren, who let their feelings be known by calling county athletic director Walter Weller.

The Packers face Chamberlain tonight for the right to go to the state semifinals for the first time since 1998, but the Florida High School Athletic Association says they have to do it on a neutral court at Pinellas Park.

The reason? The Packers gym, built when Class 5A didn't exist, doesn't comply with the classification's capacity requirements of 1,100 seats.

It didn't comply last week either, or the week before. But Jefferson and Lakewood didn't call the FHSAA, which says Chamberlain did. So the governing body of high school sports decided to look into why the Chiefs were so worried about their allotment of tickets.

Yes, the FHSAA manual is clear - it's a rule. But apparently, only if the opponent phones it in.

(Note to Fort Myers Bishop Verot: Thanks for not calling the FHSAA about playing at St. Petersburg Catholic, which, by the way, doesn't meet the capacity requirements for Class 3A. And special thanks to those who played region games this year at Oldsmar Christian and Lakewood for keeping that on the down low. Where, oh where, would we find the neutral sites to accommodate everyone?)

It didn't take the FHSAA long to tell Largo to hit the road. Just a few hours, really, to decide that gym was not big enough and the game had to be moved. It cited safety concerns, the danger of overflow crowds and the right of fans.

Good points, all of them.

If Chamberlain was bringing busloads of fans, that is.

Had the FHSAA waited just a few more hours, maybe slept on it for a night, it might have learned Chamberlain picked up 300 tickets Thursday, then said it wouldn't need all of them (240 will do, said coach Doug Aplin). Or that Largo actually seats more than 600.

Or that Aplin, who said he will make a point of smoothing things over with Price tonight, didn't want the game moved.

"When I found out they were moving the game, I told my AD to call the FHSAA and tell them don't move it, don't change the game because of us," Aplin said Friday.

Denarvise Thornton, who has handled this case for the FHSAA and clearly means well, says he never got that phone call from the Chamberlain AD. But it could have, probably would have, changed the FHSAA's decision.

Too bad the association made it so fast.

"Perhaps we're in error, but I'd much rather err on the side of caution," Thornton said.

There are plenty of questions that need to be answered - can Lakewood and Largo never host a region playoff game again, and don't opposing coaches just have to call the FHSAA and complain about a lack of tickets to take away homecourt advantage from those schools? - and Thornton said they will be addressed.

That's too late for Largo this year.

But here's a solution to right a wrong: you.

Show up tonight. Show up strong, show up loud, and you don't even have to wear blue and yellow. Because next year it could be Lakewood, or Gibbs, or Dunedin, or Palm Harbor U.

If you needed a reason to care about tonight's game, you have one.

Guys like Ben O'Donnell and Nate Johnson and Alex Gerhard and Charlie Lytle and Tony Russo and Mike Helm, they fought hard this season to get here. They won a district title, they beat Jefferson, they vaulted by mighty Lakewood.

They earned homecourt advantage. The FHSAA took it away.

Tonight, you can give it back.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sppimes.com.

BOYS BASKETBALL REGION FINALS

Today, 7 p.m.

CLASS 5A

Chamberlain (26-3) vs. Largo (26-2) at Pinellas Park

CLASS 3A

Fort Myers Bishop Verot (22-6) at St. Petersburg Catholic (26-3)

CLASS 2A

Keswick Christian (20-9) at Orlando First Academy (23-6)

CLASS A

Oldsmar Christian (19-7) at Bradenton Christian (25-1)

Up next:OBITUARIES

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