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In four seasons, coach Allen Carden has molded Pinellas Park into a winner.
By Bob Putnam, Times Staff Writer
Published February 23, 2008
The moment came in the district final when Pinellas Park defeated Clearwater. As soon as the game was over, a procession of fans moved toward the bench to congratulate Patriots boys basketball coach Allen Carden.
"I'm interested in basketball again," one former student said.
"You don't know how much you've done to restore pride in this school," a teacher added.
In four seasons, Carden has done the impossible: turn a longtime loser into a big-time winner.
Tonight, Pinellas Park plays in its first region final, one step from the state final four.
The Patriots host traditional county power Lakewood, which has won two state titles.
The game is expected to sell out and boast a crowd teeming with excitement to see if Pinellas Park can continue its remarkable run.
"It's been pretty amazing to see where we've come from," Carden said.
Carden came from winning programs. He started his coaching career at his alma mater, Northwest Whitfield (Ga.). After 14 years, Carden left to rebuild Lassiter High's program, leading it to the Sweet 16 of the Georgia Class 5A tournament in 2004.
That summer, Tammy brought the family to Safety Harbor, where she accepted a job with Marriott hotels. Carden decided to take the boys basketball job at Pinellas Park.
When Carden arrived, the Patriots didn't have much tradition. They had made the playoffs only twice before, the last appearance in 1997.
Carden knew it was going to be all but impossible to right the program in a single season, or two, or three. It takes longer than that to turn a perennial loser around and accumulate enough good players to compete for a state title.
In Carden's first season, Pinellas Park started off losing its first two games by a combined 138-44.
"It was at that moment when I started wondering what I got myself into," Carden said. "I knew we had a long road ahead of us.
"But I knew it could be done."
Carden immediately began administering an infusion of positive thinking.
His players bought into it.
The Patriots showed progress, increasing their win total each season. Last season, they got off to a hot start and just missed making the playoffs.
That created a buzz around school. Students rallied around the program and now sport T-shirts that read: "Red Storm Pinellas Park." And alumni, such as former standout Sean Minton, started coming to games.
"I can't ever remember this much excitement for one of our sports programs," said Pinellas Park athletic director Leslie Hopkins, who has been at the school for 12 years. "Coach Carden deserves a lot of credit for that. He's built this thing from the ground up."
In any successful rebuilding program, there comes a breakthrough - a game in which all the planning and working and dreaming come together on one glorious night.
That night came this month when the Patriots knocked off Clearwater for the district title. It was the second time Pinellas Park beat the Tornadoes this season.
After that game, Carden bubbled as he thought what that victory and this season have done for his school.
"Winning breeds success," Carden said. "All it takes is something like this to get it started, not just for boys basketball, but for all the sports programs here."
Class 5A region final
Lakewood (27-2) at Pinellas Park (25-4)
When/admission: 7 tonight;$6
At stake: The winner plays in the state semifinals Wednesday in Lakeland.
Outlook: The teams split two meetings, with the visitor winning each time. Pinellas Park won the last matchup to claim its first Pinellas County Athletic Conference title. In last week's region semifinal victory over Punta Gorda Charlotte, Lakewood had its best shooting performance of the season with Shamon Cox, Reggie Reed and Mike Morrison coming up big. Pinellas Park will rely on the strong duo of Cam Carden and Jake Troyli.
Class 2A region final
Calvary Christian (20-9) at Community School of Naples (22-6)