Portland (Tenn.) trail blazer

Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 10:45 p.m.
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Florida's Corey Brewer, #2, dunks in the University of Florida's 82-74 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks Saturday, January 8, 2004 at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun



  • WHO: Florida Gators (10-3, 2-0 in SEC) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (11-5, 2-1).
  • WHEN: 3 p.m.
  • WHERE: Memorial Gym (14,168), Nashville.
  • ON THE AIR: Fox 13, FM 103.7, AM 850

  • Just off Highway 52, past the strawberry fields, before the First Oak Baptist Church and the new Ponderosa Steakhouse downtown, Portland High School sprouts like a concrete mountain, out of place amidst the farmlands.
    Each spring brings hope of the new harvest of strawberries to be picked in time for the town's annual late-May festival.
    Inside the high school, a basketball prodigy was turning ripe before the school's eyes.
    A coach could see it. A mother could, too.
    Corey Brewer was special.
    Brewer will return to his home state for the first time as a college player this afternoon when Florida plays at Vanderbilt.
    In Portland, about a 45-minute drive north of Nashville near the Kentucky border, the event is being talked about as frequently in the high school hallways as it is the downtown post office.
    "Everyone is asking for tickets," said Brewer's mother, Glenda, a special education teacher at the high school. "My brother came up to me in the post office and asked if I had his tickets yet. I'm still working to try to sort everything out."
    On Monday, Brewer estimated the ticket requests at close to 200. On Friday, Glenda thought as many as 500 from Portland might show up for Brewer's first in-state college game.
    Brewer is coming into his first homecoming college game on a high. He scored a career-best 14 on 6-of-6 shooting against Auburn and picked Tigers senior point Ian Young twice in the final minutes, steals that should have clinched the win for Florida in regulation.
    Still, Brewer said he's cautious about not getting too wrapped up in the emotion of what the game stands for, even with a built-in fan section that will be loudly cheering each personal achievement.
    "It's more about the team," Brewer said. "To me, it's just another game we've got to win in the SEC. We're trying to get in the NCAA Tournament and if we don't win on the road, it's going to be hard."
    Later, Brewer conceded, "I'd love to beat a team from Tennessee."
    At his former school, Brewer remains an icon. Outside the school gym, his purple and white No. 1 Portland Panthers jersey is retired, encased his glass with his Parade All-American and Gatorade state player of the year trophies. Inside the gym, there's another banner that signified his McDonald's All-American selection. His jersey is retired alongside his older half-brother Jason Rogans, a first-team Junior College All-American who went on to play two years at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
    The accolades were a surprise gesture by Tris Kington, Brewer's tough-love high school coach. Kington spent 27 years as a high school coach in Franklin, Ky., retired for a year, then felt the coaching bug sneak up on him again. The construction of the new high school in Portland seven years ago coincided with the need for a new basketball coach. Kington, an honors American history teacher, jumped the border and jumped at the opportunity.
    Kington kicked Brewer out of his first high school practice because he felt Brewer wasn't giving enough energy on the court.
    "I'm going to push the kids that need to be pushed," Kington said. "So many kids can't accept criticism. With Corey, that wasn't the case. If you took issue with a part of his game, you would find him out there working on it the next day"
    It was Kington who preached the value of man-to-man defense, a trait that ended up getting Brewer noticed nationally.
    "I'm just old school that way," said Kington, who retired again after Brewer left. "I like hard-nosed play and we play man all of the time. I got after our teams all the time with that.
    "Hey, I didn't make the kid 6-8. I didn't make him stronger. He did that. He reads things well and picks things up."
    Brewer was 6-4 and as Kington described "rail-thin" at 140 pounds as a freshman. He made the varsity, but didn't start. But Brewer showed signs of his clutch ability by hitting three straight free throws off the bench to send a sectional playoff game to overtime.
    At the end of his freshmen year, Brewer told Kington his goals - to be a major Division I player and an NBA player.
    "He takes a lot of pride on his game and he's very goal-oriented," Kington said. "We worked on a lot of things, mainly on him getting into the weight room and getting stronger."
    Brewer spent summers playing with the Tennessee Travelers AAU team. A growth spurt from 6-4 to 6-6 between his freshman and sophomore year helped. By his junior season, Brewer gave up football and track to concentrate solely on basketball, and Brewer was beginning to garner national attention.
    Florida associate head coach Anthony Grant made his first visit to the school early in Brewer's junior year. Brewer executed some individual drills in the gym.
    "You got to see his quickness," Grant said. "For a guy his size, his ability to handle the basketball was strong. As a junior in high school, he shot the ball really well. I know that's not something he's known for right now, and I think he'll get better at that.
    "He was a big guard even though physically he wasn't developed you could see that he had good toughness, good instincts and just loved to play."
    Vanderbilt also recruited Brewer early in the process.
    "We recruited Corey and we liked him," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "He's a terrific kid. He's long and athletic. He has some good skills and high character, and he has great feet for a guy who is 6-foot-8 and a perimeter player."
    By the end of his junior year, Memphis and Tennessee joined in the fray for Brewer. Even Kentucky coach Tubby Smith paid a visit to the school.
    In the end, Brewer chose Florida based on the style of play.
    "We were fortunate that we got in early," Grant said. "He visited the campus in January and really enjoyed it, the style of play, the atmosphere here. We were able to develop a pretty good relationship with he and his family. It worked out in our favor to get in there early."
    If it were up to mom, Brewer would have ended up going to college closer to home.
    "I cried the first three days he left," Glenda said. "But I would never stand in the way of what he wanted to do. He's 18 now and can make his own decisions."
    The early commitment made Brewer's senior year a breeze. Socially, Brewer was well-liked. "Always has a smile on his face," Glenda said. "Even in high school games, when he'd get knocked around, people would ask me why he was still smiling. But that's just the way he is.
    "And he loves kids. He loves going to the youth games to watch the games and work with the younger kids. That's how he looks at himself, as a big kid. He doesn't want to grow up."
    Brewer performed skits on the school-access TV channel during his senior year while doing a sports roundup. In one, he dressed as a cheerleader. In another, he was part of a bickering husband-and-wife routine, with his friend dressing up as the wife.
    "He had the whole school in stitches," Kington said.
    The coup de grace came at the end of his senior year, when Brewer was named Grand Marshall of the Parade at the Portland Strawberry Festival, an honor usually reserved for local and state dignitaries. Glenda, a Portland native who returned to her hometown after 17 years ago after living in Nashville and Indianapolis, rode beside her son on the float, and couldn't have been more proud.
    Except maybe today.
    "I still can't believe it when they announce, 'Corey Brewer from Portland, Tenn.,' " Glenda said. "I didn't know early on if he could make it, but he did. It's like a dream. A very good dream."
    You can reach Kevin Brockway at brockwk@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5054.
  • NOTES: Florida has won 7 of its last 8 against Vanderbilt ... The lone loss during the stretch came last year at Memorial Gym 86-72, which snapped a three-game Florida winning streak .. Florida is shooting 52.8 percent from the floor this season and 39.1 percent from 3-point range ... A 58.5 percent shooting night against Auburn improved Florida to 9-0 when shooting better than 50 percent ... Vanderbilt is hitting 42.9 percent of its 3-point shots ... Center Dawid Przybyszweski shooting 47.6 percent (30-63) from 3-point lead ... Starting point guard Mario Moore is at 47.7 percent beyond the arc ... Defensively, Florida is averaging 9.2 steals per game and scoring 28.6 percent of its points off turnovers ... Last season, Florida was 1-1 in second games of two-game SEC road stretches ... The Gators lost at Tennessee 65-63 following an 88-78 win at Alabama, but later in the season won at Ole Miss 81-66 following a 76-62 loss at Georgia ... Injured Florida guard Matt Walsh and Vanderbilt backup center Ted Skuchas were high-school teammates in Germantown, Pa.
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