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Crystal River shooting high despite history

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 3, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Success is relative.

At some schools, 20 wins isn't good enough for a basketball coach to keep his or her job. At Crystal River, it might be cause for a parade.

In case you're not aware of the Pirates' hoops history, here are the highlights: In 1991, Crystal River reached the playoffs for the first time and lost to Eustis by 14 points. Three years later, the Pirates advanced but lost to Gainesville Eastside by eight.

Want more? Sorry, that's it.

Last season, Crystal River was 8-20. Normally that wouldn't be much cause for optimism. But because the Pirates won exactly once the previous year, coach Tony Stukes thinks his team is about to turn the corner.

"I feel like we can compete with anybody," Stukes said.

That would be a welcome change.

In his sixth season at Crystal River, Stukes is forever the optimist. The likable 38-year-old knows history isn't on his side, but hopes persistance is.

Stukes, a former Pirates guard, never reached the playoffs as a player and has failed to advance in 10 seasons as a head coach. He spent five years at Madison County, which -- like Crystal River -- is a football school.

"That's our goal," Stukes said. "It would be a tremendous effort. I think once they get a taste of (the playoffs), they'll want to continue to do it and will build from that."

Of course, reaching the postseason won't be easy.

The Pirates, who open their schedule at home tonight at 7 against Central, play in the same district as Citrus, which likely will be state-ranked most of the season, and always-tough Dunnellon and Hernando.

"You don't look at other teams. You've got to look at yourself," Stukes said. "You've just got to go out and play. The kids enjoy being with each other, and that shows on the floor. They're working hard in practice, and it's carrying into the game."

Rewind to two years ago.

In the middle of that dreadful one-victory season, Stukes nearly gave in. His squad couldn't win. There were internal problems. And yes, Stukes faced periods of self-doubt.

"It was tough at that point," he said. "But the kids came together. We had some decide, "Hey, let's start playing and do what we can.' We played a lot of close games at the end of the year, and the kids played hard."

Stukes was revived.

The Pirates started slow last season, but by the end were better than anybody in these parts had expected.

The current team has more experience (three starters return) and more chemistry than any of the program's squads in recent seasons. And perhaps, most important, football ended earlier than usual so Stukes didn't have to wait 2-3 weeks to have a full group.

"That's been difficult," Stukes said. "This is the first year I've coached when my school didn't have a (football) team in the playoffs."

Perhaps the basketball squad will get there instead.

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