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[Times photos: Thomas Goethe]
Chamberlain fans spell out their enthusiasm.

Heart, but no crown

Chamberlain High and its veteran coach come up short on the scoreboard but not on determination in the state championship game.

By RICK GERSHMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 9, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- The state championship game was over, and Billy Turner pointed at the Doak Campbell Stadium scoreboard.

"I said I thought we could win 24-21, and there it is," the Chamberlain High coach said, then rectified his statement:

"Almost. Not quite good enough."

Friday night, the score of Chamberlain's opponent, Naples, was in fact 21. But under Chamberlain's name, it read: 17.

One touchdown shy of Turner's prediction. One touchdown shy of the Class 5A state football crown.

One touchdown shy of Turner's 200th victory across a career that has spanned four decades.

That's okay. He can get No. 200 to kick off next season. Though Turner is 64 and is likely to retire after next year, he suggested otherwise after the loss in the Florida State University stadium.

After a season like this, Turner said, "I want to coach until I'm 90."

Chamberlain player Chris Augustine, left, and assistant coach Billy Howell, right, console John Thomas after the team's loss to Naples.

Despite the loss, Turner was thrilled by the way his team refused to give up and got back in the game. Naples led 21-3 at halftime and appeared to be on the way to a blowout victory. The Golden Eagles had scored an average of more than 49 points in all four playoff wins this season, and Chamberlain's vaunted defense had not had much success stopping them.

Instead, the Chiefs made some halftime adjustments, played smart, containment defense in the second half, and held Naples scoreless. Chamberlain's offense also came alive in the second half, as Donovan Davis and Michael Ross scored touchdowns to close the gap.

"I'm so proud that we didn't give up, because we could have," Turner said. "It was like a dream, the whole season. It just didn't come true."

In his career, Turner has won more games than any other coach in Hillsborough County. But entering this season, his teams had never won a playoff game.

This year, the Chiefs won four straight, extending a winning streak that began in the third week of the regular season. After opening the season with two close losses, Chamberlain entered the state title game with 12 straight wins, hoping to pull out Lucky 13 against Naples.

Two of those wins were over rival Hillsborough High, a team Chamberlain had not defeated in almost a decade. It took four overtimes for Chamberlain to overtake the Terriers in the ninth game of the regular season. The win completed a sweep of district opponents.

Three weeks later, Chamberlain and Hillsborough met again in the second round of the playoffs, and the Chiefs pulled out a 28-21 win in regulation.

Turner never lost confidence, even after his team opened up 0-2. He knew his team could play much better: The Chiefs turned the ball over six times in the season opener. After that, the team did not commit a turnover for three straight games, culminating in a 35-3 whipping of district foe Wharton, which entered the game 3-0.

The Wharton win was the beginning of a four-game stretch in which the Chiefs outscored opponents 174-10, though none of that quartet -- which also included north Tampa teams Alonso, Leto and Sickles -- had a winning record in 2001. In fact, of the four, only Leto has ever had a winning record.

So Chamberlain still had a lot of proving left to do when it took its five-game win streak to King in Week 8. The Lions were at home, they already had beaten Hillsborough earlier in the year and could clinch the district title by beating the Chiefs.

Instead, Chamberlain's defense led the way to a 16-12 win, as the Chiefs forced King running back Raymond Neal, who entered the game with 1,165 yards, to fumble on consecutive possessions in the first quarter. Neal finished with just 59 yards.

Fans can't hide their disappointment as the Chiefs lose 21-17 to Naples.

But Chamberlain still needed to turn around the next week and beat Hillsborough, its nemesis for nine years, in order to clinch the district title. The game would go much longer than anyone expected, and would feature an unlikely hero in Tim Frank, a junior backup placekicker.

Turner said he would tell his players "to just think about what they did. We had a great year."

This season, he said, made him hungry to return to the state playoffs: "I think we can put this kind of team together again."

Chamberlain fan Charlie Borcher said Friday that he was proud of the team's effort.

"I don't think anybody thought they were coming back from that" halftime deficit, he said. "But they showed a lot of heart and almost did it. They've come back in games all year and if anyone's going to do it, it's them."

Principal Henry Washington agreed that this team is full of heart.

"You can't measure the heart we had," Washington said. "They could have lain down, but they didn't, and we still had a chance to win.

"They were very gallant, and everyone at Chamberlain High will accept them as winners. They're winners at Chamberlain High School."

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