With the exception of Strawberry Crest’s 20-8 record, 2012 was not a good year for the area’s girls basketball teams.
It was clear to both Durant and Plant City that changes needed to be made, so both schools replaced their coaching staffs.
Constance Wharton, with the Lady Cougars, and Wilt Wilkerson, with the Lady Raiders, are getting ready to create a new era in 2013. They aren’t coming into their jobs with the same backgrounds, strategies or even philosophies. But, what they both have made clear is that it’s time to start doing things the right way.
RETURNING TO HER ROOTS
Wharton has been all over the map, even living in Europe for a time. She met her first husband, who served in the U.S. Army, after high school, and they moved around a lot: three-and-one-half years in Berlin, Germany, followed by stretches in Ft. Raleigh, Kan., and Virginia Beach, Va.
But, for as long as she was in the U.S., basketball was a constant in her life.
“I’ve always kind of had my hands in basketball,” Wharton says.
Wharton got into coaching at Junction City, Kan., and ended up volunteering at a middle school in Virginia Beach. She was successful enough to earn the head job in Virginia, but life got in the way before she could consider it.
“They asked me to be the head coach,” Wharton says. “But, I turned it down because of family issues.”
Specifically, Wharton knew she had to move to care for her sister, who has a mental disability.
That brings her back to where her love of the game began: Plant City. Wharton attended Plant City High School, where she played basketball with assistant coach Lolita Horton and ran track. She graduated in 1986, Horton in 1987.
Horton, who previously coached at Turkey Creek Middle School, transferred to Durant and took the assistant coaching job upon learning that Wharton was named head coach.
Other than volunteer coach Nathan Francis, Wharton’s ushering in a brand-new staff. Al Mitchell, an assistant track and football coach at Durant, also is coming on as an assistant in what will be his first basketball job.
As for the players, they know they’ve got their work cut out for them. Last season, under Kyla Donlevy, the Lady Cougars posted a 2-18 overall record — 0-10 in the district — and morale was low. It seems that they’re ready for a fresh start.
“They’ve been wonderful; they made me feel welcome right away,” Wharton says. “They’re motivated, they’ve been conditioning early. … I’m almost speechless.”
DON’T CALL IT REBUILDING
On the other hand, Wilt Wilkerson does not believe he was hired to reboot the team. The Valrico native has been involved with Plant City’s basketball team for the past few years, and he was among the first to express an interest in the job after Stephen Eatman’s departure. After watching Wilkerson run the team’s summer program, Athletic Director Traci Durrance decided he was the best man for the job.
Wilkerson has been a basketball coach since he was 16 years old and a student at Bloomingdale High School. He began in parks and recreation leagues, then moved on to an AAU travel team in Brandon for a year. He was an assistant at Durant for two years and had an eight-year stint as an AAU travel circuit coach.
Because he is not stepping into a new scenario like Wharton, Wilkerson is bringing familiarity and a desire to win right now.
“This is not going to be a rebuilding year but a building year,” Wilkerson says. “There were some senior issues and some coach issues, but last year’s team did good, all things considered.”
Among the team’s returning starters is forward Shayna Lawrence, a glass cleaner who averaged 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game last season. Lawrence is currently drawing interest from Louisiana State University, the University of North Florida and a slew of other schools.
Lawrence will be key to Wilkerson’s strategy: Thrive in transition to outwork its opponents.
“Everything starts with defense, but we need to be able to score in transition,” Wilkerson says.
Contact Justin Kline at email@example.com.
CHARGERS AT A GLANCE
Strawberry Crest didn’t win a district championship in 2012, but a 20-8 overall record is nothing to be angry about. Even better for the Chargers is the fact that they have been moved to Class 7A District 7, where Tampa Bay Tech only finished with one more win.
Among the returning Lady Chargers is star forward Aliyah Gregory, who averaged 19 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.8 steals per game in 2012. Gregory, who recently committed to UCF, is easily one of the most electrifying players in the area and will help keep this team competitive.