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Palm Harbor aglow as 2-1 start boosts hopes

Off to their best start in school history, inspired Hurricanes eye district foe Countryside.

By BOB PUTNAM
Published September 15, 2006


PALM HARBOR - For three ooh-and-aah-filled hours, fans squirmed in their seats or paced along the fence.

When the Palm Harbor defense held late to secure a victory over Boca Ciega last week, the players and fans enjoyed hand slaps and hugs after this latest chapter in a surprising start to the season.

Shake your head and blink your eyes. The Hurricanes are 2-1 for the first time in the program's 10-year history.

Tonight, Palm Harbor faces Countryside (3-0) in the Class 5A, District 9 opener for both teams.

"I've been pleasantly surprised with the way things have gone so far," first-year coach Pete Just said.

The notion existed for years that this academically competitive high school, which boasts a medical magnet and international baccalaureate program, had no chance against other county schools.

But Just, who teaches history in the international baccalaureate program, said there are plenty of top-rate players who are good students.

"The trick was getting them out there," Just said.

Those were not the only tough odds Just faced. The former Dunedin coach took over the team in January. He replaced Dustin Bengston, who was banned from coaching in the county for using profanity and intimidating remarks toward students. (Bengston has since been reinstated and is now an assistant at Dunedin).

Just also had to deal with the emotions many players have after former coach Mike June died of leukemia last month.

"That was really hard for me because I've known Mike for a long time," Just said. "But I think the way he carried himself has helped this team with some inspiration."

Just also has tried to instill the notion that these players can go down in history for turning around the Palm Harbor program.

So far, the plan has worked.

The Hurricanes have 43 players and are relying on a ball-control offense led the running of Matt Hyland and veteran blocking of Alex Smith, Eric Hahn, Ryan Short, Bobby Santana, Kevin Dickinson, Matt Farrell and Cody Donnelly. The defense also has been tough.

"We win by playing solid defense, running the ball and controlling the line of scrimmage," Just said. "We're just hoping it continues."