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Eight months later, fire-damaged Lakewood gym still closed

Both basketball teams played their entire seasons on the road, and now offseason conditioning and summer camps on campus are likely out this school year.

At the start of this school year, Lakewood High was scheduled to get a much needed facelift for its gymnasium. The $8.6 million renovation project was to include a new roof, new basketball poles and a new floor.

A month into the project a new floor was installed.

Then came the fire.

On Sept. 24, firefighters arrived at 5:40 a.m. after a maintenance worker discovered the gym was on fire. A stack of padded wall mats were burning and sending smoke throughout the gym.

When the fire was finally contained, offices, bathrooms and locker rooms all had smoke damage. The new floor was burned and water logged. The goal of having a renovated gym before basketball season was put on hold.

But what has coaches and administrators most frustrated is the lack of progress since the fire. The gym is still unusable. Ash still sits in the middle of the floor. Wires hang from the ceiling. Poles that will hold the basketball hoop and backboard sprawl on the dusty gym floor.

Pinellas County Director of Athletics Al Bennett said the holdup is between contractors and the insurance company. Bennett is optimistic that will be resolved soon.

The goal now is to have the gym ready for the start of volleyball season, which begins in August. Bennett expects the new floor will go in around mid-June.

“Once things get started again then you have to figure about six weeks,” Bennett said.

RELATED: Every game is a road game this season for Lakewood basketball

It will end up being an entire school year with no gym. And here’s what has those at Lakewood even more frustrated. Palm Harbor University discovered at the beginning of the school year that its floor had to be replaced due to structural damage.

The volleyball team was forced to play its games in other gyms. The new floor was installed by December. Then a storm caused the gym’s roof to leak, damaging the floor anew.

But that floor is being replaced and construction is almost completed.

Lakewood boys basketball coach Anthony Lawrence had plans to hold a summer camp, in conjunction with Eckerd College, on campus this summer. Delayed construction on the gym likely will deep six those plans. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

“It just seems like Lakewood is always the stepchild of Pinellas County,” boys basketball coach Anthony Lawrence said.

Lakewood girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil isn’t thrilled with the situation either.

“At the end of the day, it’s the kids that suffer,” Tunsil said. “I mean, Palm Harbor had their gym done and then re-done and ours has been barely touched.”

In the meantime, both Tunsil and Lawrence had to practice and play games in other gyms. The boys played some games at Thurgood Marshall Middle School. The girls had to take a bus to Gladden Park to practice.

Lakewood’s boys ended up playing for the Class 6A state championship despite playing in a different gym almost every night.

Once basketball season is over doesn’t mean the teams stop playing. At most schools, there are still open gyms where players can shoot on their own. There are offseason workouts and conditioning.

But not at Lakewood.

Tunsil shuttles her team to open gyms every Tuesday and Thursday at Dixie Hollins with the help of parents. Lawrence also has to find gyms for his team to workout.

Another wrinkle is that Lawrence hoped to co-host a summer camp with Eckerd College in the new gym, but he is not sure that will be possible with the construction delays.

Bennett said he’s doing all he can to get Lakewood the gym it expected.

“I feel so bad for them,” he said. “The kids haven’t had a gym all year. Everybody is frustrated.”

Staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report.