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Chiefs raring to go

BOYS BASKETBALL CLASS 5A FINAL: The little team that could is ready to restore state glory to Hillsborough County.

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published March 3, 2006


TAMPA - With his players trickling into practice Thursday afternoon, Doug Aplin moved across the gym at a rapid pace while sweeping the court with an oversized broom. As he finished, the longtime Chamberlain coach, looking a bit tired, was asked how much sleep he had gotten the night before.

"Not much," Aplin confessed.

That's understandable.

A day earlier, Aplin's unranked and unheralded Chiefs (28-3) defeated Port St. Lucie 56-43 in the Class 5A semifinals. Tonight at the Lakeland Center, they play Gainesville Eastside (25-7) with a chance to become the first county public school to win a state title since Plant City in 1982.

Only two previous Chamberlain squads have reached the final four. One lost in the semifinals. The other was soundly beaten by national power Miami Senior 91-62 in the 1990 4A final.

"When they throw the ball up for the jump, that's when it's going to hit us," Chiefs forward Mo Lightburn said.

Chamberlain enters the championship game on a high. The Chiefs have won seven straight since the start of their district tournament and only once have they won by fewer the 10 points. Against Port St. Lucie, Chamberlain wasn't perfect but scored when it needed to and forced 23 turnovers thanks largely to a trapping halfcourt defense.

"That's the quickest defensive team I've played," Port St. Lucie guard Luther Thomas said.

Throughout the day Thursday, Aplin received countless congratulatory phone calls and e-mails. Several players, including a couple members of the Chiefs' previous final four teams, wished him luck. Even St. Petersburg Catholic coach Mike Moran, whose team lost in the 3A semifinals Wednesday, offered his support.

"It makes you feel good that people are pulling for you," Aplin said.

Chamberlain's work, of course, isn't finished. Eastside, which also is without a state title, will be playing in its first final after pulling off a mild surprise when it defeated highly regarded Winter Park Lake Howell 65-46. Chamberlain and Eastside mirror each other in many ways, particularly in their aggressive, physical play.

"They look like a strong team," Chiefs guard James Devlin said.

What will it take for Chamberlain to win?

"We don't need any heroes," Aplin said. "Our guys just need to do what they do."

The way things have gone, that just might be enough. Enough to bring back the championship. Enough to end the county's lengthy public school title drought.

"We're ready to play," Chiefs guard Jonny Mack said. "We want to put Chamberlain on the map."