Column: Pulling out the bleachers
The moment things changed for the Palatka High School boys basketball team came early in the 2009-10 season.
It was a subtle move, but it made a world of difference for new coach Lamar Purifoy’s Panthers.
“Before I started, the bleachers on the other side of the court were left untouched,” Purifoy said. “I made the decision to have them pulled out. It was one way for us to change things.”
Of course, filling the bleachers across the court was another subject ... but Purifoy didn’t have to worry about that. His Panthers were running off to the best start in program history at 24-0.
Those bleachers haven’t been pushed in since. And the mark of Palatka High greatness continues to today as Purifoy passed the torch on to Donald Lockhart, who himself passed the torch on to current coach Bryant Oxendine. On Thursday, Oxendine and his current group of Panthers played in their third FHSAA state semifinal in seven seasons, losing to Cape Coral Mariner, 64-28, at the Lakeland Center.
“Everyone loves winners. It’s easy to follow winners,” Purifoy said. “But we had to first get the kids to buy into the system and then their families. They bought into it.”
Did they ever. That Panther team that went 24-0 may have been the most talented team in program history. But Purifoy and his Panthers ran into a pesky mosquito – Creekside, which slowed it down effectively to stun the Panthers on Creekside’s court, 53-49, in overtime in the District 4-4A tournament, then to prove it wasn’t a fluke, the Knights trolled the Panthers again on the same court in a 54-53 Region 1-4A semifinal.
After enduring the heartbreak of their season ending, Purifoy took some of his players to the Lakeland Center to the state tournament, not to torment them on what could’ve been, but what might still be.
“It was an eye-opener for the guys who were returning,” Purifoy said. “They watched and grew hungry.”
And the 2010-11 Panthers came with a fork, knife and a healthy appetite.
Upset-minded Palm Coast Matanzas had no chance in beating the Panthers, who took the district title, 64-47. This time, the Panthers took care of business with a 65-57 Region 1-4A triumph over Panama City Rutherford.
The first Final Four in 37 years for a Putnam County basketball team was a thrill. But against Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons, the Panthers missed 38 shots from the field and it came back to bite them as they lost, 55-53, the Panthers having a chance to tie it with 20 seconds to go, but never getting a final shot off.
It would be Purifoy’s last game as coach as he accepted an offer to teach up in the Atlanta area. His career record in two seasons with the Panthers – a gaudy 51-6. But before Purifoy left, Donald Lockhart, Purifoy’s main assistant, became the new coach.
“(Purifoy) and I had discussed the job before he left,” Lockhart said. “We talked about the foundation we had set for when he was coaching. Basically, the keys were in my hands.”
The first year was tough as the Panthers went 12-13 and lost to North Marion in the district tournament semifinals. But with most of the players back the next season, the 2012-13 season turned into a jewel. Highlighted by four victories over Gainesville Eastside, including the District 5-5A finale and the Region 2-5A semifinals, Palatka flew to another regional championship, this time, finishing strong on their home court to defeat Eustis, 67-57, to go to a second Final Four.
“That (‘12-13) team was unique in its own fashion because that team had traveled the year before with Lamar to play summer ball,” said Lockhart, pointing out the successful work Purifoy did after he came back home to Palatka after one year in Atlanta to work with the team in the offseason in AAU and USSSA play. “We built something together. It was probably not the most gifted team we’ve had coming through, but they were a bunch of guys who were great playing together.”
The Panthers went back to Lakeland to play American Heritage of Plantation, which featured four players over 6-foot-5. The size intimidated the Panthers throughout, but still, Lockhart thinks about the game for one reason.
“We were down six points before halftime and I called a timeout,” he said. “(American Heritage) was having a problem shooting the ball and we had a little momentum, but right after the timeout, (Heritage) built the lead back to 11 at halftime. They came out tough in the third quarter and by the fourth quarter, they were up by 28 and you just wonder, ‘What just happened?’ It was also a lack of experience and our guys were wooed by being (in Lakeland). There were a lot of distractions, too.”
Ultimately, Palatka lost to the Patriots, 68-49, to end the year at 26-5.
The next three seasons under Lockhart saw the Panthers go 19-8, 14-15 and 14-13 and reach district championship games each time out. But Ponte Vedra (2014 and ‘16) and Menendez (2015) spoiled those title game parties. And the only state tournament win the Panthers claimed was an emotional first-round victory over Jacksonville Bishop Kenny in 2015, 68-64.
Months after losing to Alachua Santa Fe in the Region 2-5A tournament opener a year ago, Lockhart got an offer to be head coach at Matanzas High, a school he lived near. He took the job last summer and recommended the PHS job to Oxendine, his trusty right-hand man whose defensive schemes helped lead the Panthers to the 2013 Final Four.
Oxendine got the job and after running through this year’s regular season, the Panthers won the District 5-6A title. Last Friday, the 22-8 Panthers won the Region 2-6A title as well by beating 27-1 Brooksville Nature Coast, 50-43.
Now it was Oxendine’s turn to take a Panther team to the Final Four.
“Some schools never get to a Final Four and I’ve had the privilege of being in two,” Oxendine said. “That’s just beyond a blessing. I still want to go further than Lamar and Donald did and win a state championship. They’ve earned the banner on our (gym) wall for region and district championships, but now I want a ‘State Championship’ banner on that wall.”
As for the guy who set this run in motion ...
“Sometimes I do take a step back and see where we started,” said Purifoy, whose son Demare is a starting senior forward with the team, “and how it got here.”
With the simplest of gestures.