Coach K returns with Class 5A title contender
Derek Kurnitsky returned to Port St. Joe last weekend, receiving a warm welcome from friends, acquaintances, and former colleagues and players when he arrived at R. Marion Craig Coliseum and entered Coach “Epp” Court.
Kurnitsky, affectionately called “Coach K,” led Tiger Shark basketball to 179 wins between 2004-14, including seven consecutive district titles, four Final Four appearances, and a state runner-up finish in 2007.
Coming back has been “pretty good,” said Kurnitsky, “just to see everybody that I’ve worked with, people I taught with, and all my guys” that he coached.
On this visit, Coach K brought a juggernaut with him in the form of the top-ranked Class 5A team, the 10-0 Orange Park Raiders.
Sporting all of the characteristics of a potential state champion squad, the Raiders soared to an 80-37 win over the Tiger Sharks on Saturday, Dec. 18 at the Gulf Franklin Classic.
Behind Josiah Sabino’s eight points and Thomas Faucett’s six, the Raiders raced to a 22-5 first quarter lead, but T.J. Jenkins and LaJuan Zaccaro, Jr. helped St. Joe “win” the second quarter 21-20, and the half ended with Orange Park leading 42-26.
Still, for the Sharks there would be no comeback on this night, as the Raiders utilized their superior height, speed, and depth to take a 67-33 lead going into the final quarter.
Jeremiah Gabriel, a 6-foot 6-inch power forward, dominated the boards and scored 12 consecutive points during the third frame, and ended with a game-high 25 points.
By common agreement, the fourth quarter operated with a running clock. With the win, Orange Park improved to 11-0.
Sabino, already a signee with Jacksonville University, added 22 points, including four dunks. Faucett finished with 13 points.
“We’re solid,” said Kurnitsky. “We were sloppy in the second quarter, but besides that we looked good. When we get our minds right and do it, we’re good. I’ve got a good group of boys. We’ve just got to keep getting better.”
Regarding this trip, “we’ve been trying (to come back) for years,” said Coach K, “and it never worked out. I’ve been talking to Sandy (Quinn), and the schedule worked out this year.”
“I said that I want to take my kids on the road. We don’t get to go to the beach much, and we want to have a good time and develop a bond, so it just happened to work out,” he said.
The Raiders concluded the tournament with a game against Franklin County on Monday, Dec. 20.
“(Seahawk head coach Ray Bailey) used to be on my staff,” said Kurnitsky. “We went to a couple of Final Fours together. It’s nice (to be back).”
Port St. Joe coach Toney Powell was proud “our kids never gave up” despite the score. “We just could never convert” and duplicate the second quarter success, he said..
Zaccaro led St. Joe with 14 points, followed by Jenkins with 12.
The Tiger Sharks played Wakulla on Monday, Dec. 20 to wrap up the tournament.
PSJ 67 Blountstown 56
Friday night’s home contest against Blountstown had a much more satisfying ending for Port St. Joe, as the Sharks bested the Tigers 67-56.
Down 10-4, the Sharks went on a 14-2 run to close out the first quarter ahead 18-12, a lead they would not relinquish.
Jenkins led the burst with nine points, six on fast-break layups after lengthy and accurate passes from Zaccaro.
Continuing the pressure defense, the Sharks increased the lead to 35-24 by the half, and 49-33 after three quarters.
The Tigers began exerting their own pressure in the final frame, but were frequently whistled for violations that sent Sharks to the line for 21 free throws, and they sunk 12 of them to help ward off the Tiger charge.
During the final quarter, the Blountstown coach received a technical foul for his excessive protests of the officiating.
Although Blountstown managed to whittle the score down to 62-51 with 2:42 remaining, the Sharks sank five free throws to ice the contest in spite of four three-point Tiger shots during the quarter.
Jenkins led all scorers with 29 points, with Zaccaro and Darion Mills contributing 19 and 10 points, respectively. Jay Stuckey also scored four vital fourth quarter points to help St. Joe maintain a comfortable lead.
“This was a big win,” said Powell, “and it was exciting and good for the community and the kids.”