PINELLAS PARK — Over the past decade-plus, Pinellas Park High has had two kinds of girls basketball teams: bad and very bad. In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons the Patriots didn’t win a game. There were two seasons where they won only once. Last year they were 3-16.
But a funny thing happened on the way to another losing season.
Alli Head, the top player for the Patriots as a freshman and sophomore, transferred to Clearwater prior to last season. She decided to return to Pinellas Park as a senior.
“I came back because this felt like home," Head said. “I just wanted to come back here for my senior year. It didn’t matter at all to me that Clearwater was a better team. I just wanted to play here."
Head is one of the top scorers in the state with 28.5 points per game. Still, try as she might, Head couldn’t do it all by herself. The Patriots were 5-5 at the holiday break and it was looking like another sub-.500 season was a lock.
Then came another stroke of luck.
Coach Gary Preston got a call from the parents of a sophomore named Brianna Erickson during winter break. The family just moved to Pinellas Park from Rio Rancho, N.M., due to a job transfer.
Erickson was the top player on her high school team and she wanted to continue playing when school started again in January. Preston wasn’t going to turn anyone down, so he made sure Erickson was eligible and found her a uniform.
After just one practice with the team, she scored 18 points in her first game against Seminole.
“Everyone was very welcoming," Erickson said. “I’m glad that I was zoned here."
So are the Patriots. With two bona fide scorers, they are a much different team now than when the season started. In Class 6A, District 10, Manatee, St. Petersburg and Palmetto are going to be the top teams. Now Pinellas Park is a real threat.
But Preston realized that he needed to be creative if he was going to have Erickson for the postseason. She had to play in 10 regular-season games in order to be eligible for the district tournament. But only nine games remained.
After being turned down by several schools, Keswick Christian agreed to add the Patriots. Although the game was a 76-39 lopsided loss, Erickson now will be available in the playoffs.
After Monday night’s 92-39 win over Clearwater Central Catholic, in which Head scored 34 points and surpassed 1,000 points in her career and Erickson added 27 points, the Patriots improved to 10-9. With two winnable games to close the regular season, a winning season is highly likely.
It may not sound like much, but spirits are high.
“We are the underdogs but we like that," Head said. “I see us being very successful."
Preston, in his sixth season at Pinellas Park, finally has a team that can compete. He has been on the wrong end of too many running clock games in his tenure with the Patriots.
“It’s been a struggle here at Pinellas Park," he said. “We don’t always get the numbers. We couldn’t have a JV this year. But we play with the hand we’re dealt. Good things have happened.
“Everything just seems to be falling into place. We play a team game now. Everybody contributes. It used to be that Alli would score, even though she really didn’t like that. She wanted to involve other players. I think that made us a better team. Then when Bri came in that changed everything. Those two are feeding off each other."
And he has a prediction for next week that would have been unthinkable in November.
“I really believe that we can win our district now," Preston said. “The good thing is that nobody is expecting it."