ST. PETERSBURG — Members of the Lakewood High School's girls basketball team gathered in front of the school at 2:15 p.m. sharp Monday. It was the first official day of practice, and they didn't want to miss the bus.
When the gray chartered school bus pulled up, players piled in for the 15-minute ride to Gladden Park. There, they practiced for just over two hours before loading back onto the bus for the ride back to school.
That will be the practice routine for the Spartans this season. During renovations to the gym, parts of the floor caught fire in the early-morning hours of Sept. 24. Students arrived at the school to see smoke coming from the gym.
"It smelled like turkey," senior guard Diana Rosenthal said. "Like burnt turkey. It smelled like that the whole morning. It still smells like that."
Without a home gym, Lakewood officials had to scramble. The girls team will practice at Gladden Park and play their home games at Bay Point Middle School. The boys will practice at Thurgood Marshall Middle School and likely play a bulk of their home games at Eckerd College or nearby high schools.
Lakewood's basketball teams were hoping to play in a renovated gym this season. That will have to wait another year.
"I'm mad," said junior center Macey Zeh-Arndt, who transferred from Seffner Christian after her freshman year. "It (stinks). I love Lakewood for a lot of reasons, but part of why I came was because we were going to have a new gym. Now I won't be able to play on it until my senior year, and all the seniors won't be able to play on it at all."
To be fair, there are only two seniors on Lakewood's roster: Rosenthal and guard Nykisha Macon. The lack of a gym is an annoyance more than anything. It's not as if the Spartans won't be able to play at all. But they will be playing in a smaller gym with none of the Lakewood banners on the walls — and they were undefeated at home a season ago.
"We can't even have our senior night at our own gym," Macon said. "I don't know if they'll let us put up signs or anything. It's annoying."
As she usually does, head coach Necole Tunsil is putting a positive spin on a situation out of her control. She said Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett played a big role in securing a place to practice, as well as arranging transportation to Gladden Park.
She said her principal, Erin Savage, and assistant principal for athletics Laura Mudd were helpful in finding a place for home games, as was Bay Point principal Dr. Jason Shedrick. And Gladden Park recreation supervisor Christopher Lampley has made sure the gym is clear for Lakewood practices.
"At the end of the day, what can you do about it?" Tunsil said. "Everybody was trying to help me find a solution. Everybody has been very gracious.
"One thing I didn't want is one day you play at St. Pete and then another day you play at Boca Ciega. I wanted to be consistent."
Lakewood is not the only Pinellas school to scramble to find another gym this year. Palm Harbor University's volleyball team had to play at Carwise Middle School after its gym floor buckled after the first home match of the season.
As long as the Spartans have a place to play, they will remain competitive in a county they usually dominate. There are only four returning players from a team that went 26-5 and played in the Class 6A state semifinals. But Tunsil believes there is enough young talent to make another run.
And here's a silver lining: Lakewood has three new sets of uniforms.
"We really don't have a home uniform," Tunsil said. "But we're going to make every gym our home.
"We're going to tackle this thing in a positive way. We could sit around and say, 'Woe is me.' But we're a strong team. We've got kids who are motivated and want to win a championship. It's going to be a positive for us. It's going to build some character."