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Ex-wrestling guru leads Patriots' rise


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001

PINELLAS PARK -- For as long as he could remember, Pinellas Park coach Dave Mauger had gone skiing at this time of year.

He said he decided against a trip this year because he spent a lot of money taking the family skiing during the winter holiday and it would not be wise to go again considering his oldest daughter, Kristin, was starting college this fall.

But there is another reason the trip would have been ill-advised.

It would have coincided with the Patriots' first trip to the post-season in more than a decade.

The Patriots, who beat Seminole and Boca Ciega to win the Class 5A, District 10 tournament, host East Lake in a Region 3 quarterfinal at 7:30 tonight.

The thought of Pinellas Park being in the playoffs had never really crossed Mauger's mind when he decided not to go on the trip. Who could blame him? The Patriots have had their share of hardships during the past few seasons and entered the district tournament with a losing record.

Yet what is even harder to imagine is Mauger would be the one to get them to the post-season.

Mauger coached wrestling for 29 seasons (16 at Dixie Hollins, 13 at Pinellas Park) and amassed a county record of more than 300 dual meet victories. So what on earth would possess him to apply for the girls coaching job when it became vacant after the 1998-99 season? After all, this was a guy who was cut from the basketball squad at Dixie Hollins -- "coach said I was out of shape" -- and had not played a lick since he was a middle-schooler at Tyrone.

"My wife thought I should apply," Mauger said. "She said, 'You spend all this time helping these boys out in wrestling. Why in the heck don't you do the same thing for our daughter."'

Kristin, then a sophomore, had suffered through a miserable season. Mauger, who had been to most of her games, had seen enough.

"He saw how much of a joke the program was then," Kristin said. "He said, 'I know I can do better than that."'

So Mauger quit wrestling to take on girls basketball. The signs of his presence are unmistakable.

He drummed up support from parents and boosters. He bought basketballs and new chairs. He even started two tournaments, something the program had never done before. But nowhere has Mauger's influence been greater than in the win column. The season before he took over, the varsity and junior varsity teams combined to win four games. "I was starting from rock bottom, so we had nowhere to go but up," he said. "We did it with a lot of hard work. I tried to teach the basic skills and put a lot of hours into this thing."

Mauger took the players he could find in the hallways and had them attend camps, participate in open gym sessions and play for AAU summer leagues, where he has coached for the past five years. The experience showed as the varsity and JV teams combined to win 19 games last season.

"I didn't know how it would be when Mauger took over," sophomore Lexi Rogiers-Jensen said. "But you can tell he's a real dedicated coach with the fundraising and all the time he spends with it. He really cares about us."

It didn't take long for the players to believe in him. This season, Pinellas Park's varsity is 11-16. The JV team finished 12-3 with the losses by a combined four points. There were some close losses on varsity, too. Three were by a point, two by four points and two by five.

That was enough to give the team confidence.

"We've all started playing together, and after we beat Seminole in districts, we knew that we could get things done," freshman Amber Cross said.

However, Mauger is not done. He plans to go to Ohio this summer to try to get his team in a tournament there during winter break in 2002. He said he'll coach three more seasons before retiring. "I'm learning fast with this sport," Mauger said. "But I only have three more years. That'll give me 34 years in coaching. I figure that's enough to where I've paid my dues."

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