SEMINOLE – It’s a cool Saturday morning and basketball coach Josh Walker is in the Seminole High School gymnasium with his team. Preparation for the upcoming Class 7A region semifinal versus Palmetto started with a three-hour coach’s meeting that started at 7 a.m.
Seminole’s head coach Josh Walker, 34, along with assistant coaches Greg Tipton, 32, and Jason Sanchez, 35 took the time to carefully review tape of the team’s last game, and their opponent’s, to find characteristics that could lead Seminole to advance to the third round of the state tournament for the first time in school history.
Then it was time to practice. The players stream in and soon remove their shoes to stretch. Sweaty feet and chatter about last night’s party, which got broken up (again), soon engulf a corner of the gym. Squeaky sneakers on the wood floor and the constant thud of the basketball echo in the gym as Walker yells a sporadic “hold that follow-through” or “be quick” at his team as they work for their next game.
Seminole has never been known as a basketball school. The last time the boy’s basketball has added a sticker to the district champion’s banner that hangs in the gym rafters was 1988. That changed two Fridays ago when Seminole blew out East Lake 63-43 to win the 7A district championship. The win streak continued Thursday when Seminole advanced over North Port on a late 3-pointer by team captain Connor Frain.
“We don’t have the best athletes at our school,” Frain said, “but we still beat teams that are way more athletic than we are. Josh puts a lot of work into the team.”
A senior this year, Frain attributes the team’s success to early off-season workouts, two-a-day practices and summer basketball camps that have recently started at the school.
Frain and his team co-captain, junior Marco Belhori, agree that the team works hard because of the work put in by their coach.
“He puts a lot of work into it all and he really cares about it,” Belhori, a junior, said. “It makes us want to work harder.”
The team has made the district finals the last three of the five years that Walker has been head coach, losing to St. Petersburg High in 2012 and 2013. After this year’s win, the community reached out in support of the coach.
“I received over 100 emails after the district win,” Walker said, “many from people I don’t even know just saying congratulations and good job, and I love it. It’s fun to be a part of that. I’ll be in the grocery store and people will stop me and I feel very honored.”
Since Walker succeeded previous coach Bill Barnett in 2009, the school and local community have been slowly starting to notice the work being put into the program.
Former SHS basketball player Nathan Pedro, 23, said, “Before Josh there were maybe 100-150 people at the home games. Now I’d guess at least 400-500 go to the games.”
One noticeable difference has been the raucous and popular “Splash Zone” student section of the home games. The Splash Zone grew organically as Walker encouraged kids to go to the games to cheer on the team. The students who come to games to show support are invited to the health classroom adjacent to the gym for free pizza, drinks and t-shirts before finding their seats behind the SHS bench.
“The games are awesome because of all the support we get with the Splash Zone and all the support that we get from the fans and the community,” Frain said.
SHS senior Connor Whitcombe said, “Walker is the man and see how hard he works and how hard he gets our friends to work for something they all love.”
Walker attributes the dedicated support of the fans to the sense of community felt in Seminole. Many students are raised in the tightknit school community of Bauder Elementary, Seminole Middle and Seminole High, all on the same street and within a block of one another, and feel a deep sense of school pride. Walker is also one of those people.
He attended the Seminole schools and broke records for the SHS basketball team. His father coached the team and his mother was an assistant principal. He was nominated as a McDonald’s All-American and received a scholarship to play basketball at North Carolina-Weslyn College where he studied to become a math teacher before returning home to Seminole. He applied for, and was denied the head coaching position and instead took the head coach position of Dunedin High School and then Osceola High School. He applied for Seminole again in 2009 and was accepted.
“I’ve always had a lot of pride for Seminole, I love basketball,” he said. “And I have a lot of respect for what it gave to me and I love that I have the opportunity to give back to it in a good way.”
The team’s turnaround didn’t happen overnight. When Walker began the team the program was strictly a seasonal sport. Starting slowly, Walker implemented year-round training and conditioning. The players have had no problem with that.
“They would come every day during spring and summer, no questions asked,” he said.
The progression of the program was taken in steps. Settling in with a familiar coaching staff that’s been together three years has helped to balance the needs of the team, but also the booster club and parents do a “phenomenal” job at supporting the team, Walker said.
“I’m blessed to have kids that really work hard and want be here,” he said. “On top of that, parents that support that and administration behind us. I think we have one of the most special programs around. It may not be the most winning program in the county but people know when you come here this is one of the toughest places to play. The student body’s going nuts and our kids are going to play hard.”
State district 7A region semifinals: Tuesday Feb. 18
Palmetto at Seminole 7 p.m.
Seminole High School
8401 131st St. N
Seminole, FL 33776