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Hernando High

Laing back in the Leopards' saddle

Published:   |   Updated: August 17, 2013 at 12:26 AM

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While Mark Latsko begins his tenure as head football coach at his alma mater, Gainesville High, his former school turned to its own alum to fill a void he left behind.

Latsko departed Hernando High after serving as head boys basketball coach for five seasons, compiling a 53-74 mark capped by an 18-8 performance in 2012-13.

With only days left before the start of the new school year, Hernando officially announced this week that it had rehired Jeff Laing to fill the position.

A former player who graduated in 1987, Laing returned to the Leopards as an assistant coach in 1993, then became head coach in 2001 until he stepped down in 2007.

During his time as headman, Hernando went 66-98 with its last two regional appearances, mostly recently in 2003-04.

"I think it's a good opportunity," Laing said. "I'm a big believer in helping out the school that helped me out so much. There was a need for some experience after Latsko's leaving and hopefully we can maintain some of that momentum built by Mark.

"I'm very excited. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to pick back up and help the school."

Laing, a social studies teacher, came back to Hernando three years ago following four years at Challenger K-8, during which he had stints coaching boys and girls basketball, and was additionally a co-athletic director.

Meanwhile he has continued to work on the Leopard baseball staff, typically with the JV club.

His run at Challenger came to a rocky conclusion, when he was suspended from coaching and removed as athletic director following an incident in a 2011 boys hoops contest.

It was deemed by the school district that he had cheated by instructing the wrong player to shoot a free throw, successfully deceiving the referees twice during the game.

Laing would later offer a written apology to the parents of his players.

His passion for Hernando was a primary factor in why he was picked to retake the reigns of the basketball program, from a list of several candidates, athletic director Kevin Bittinger said.

"We think he's what the program needed," Bittinger said. "He's got the experience. He's coached some pretty good ballplayers. We felt Latsko really turned the corner last year and Laing can keep that going.

"A lot of times it's finding the right fit. Since he was at Hernando last, he's had a lot of opportunity to grow and come back a lot better than what he was. We think he can take Hernando boys basketball to where we want it to be."

???Latsko's duties as defensive coordinator of the football team, combined with a large amount of players transitioning from football to basketball, had turned the Leopards into slow starters.

While Laing won't have the personal time conflicts in the early going, he still may not have the personnel.

"I've got 6-8 returning players playing football," Laing said. "We just won't have those guys out in the preseason and we'll have a limited number of practices, especially if the football team makes the playoffs."

Hernando's two All-County representatives from last season, Jeffrey Velasquez and Giovanni Perez, both graduated this spring.

However, Mark Wilson, an All-County point guard in 2011-12, is entering his junior year. He missed a large chunk of last season with a broken collarbone, yet still averaged 14.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.6 steals over 12 games.

Forward Ra'shaad Hart, now a senior, should also be back in the fold after averaging 8.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals.

Those two figure to be key contributors for Laing, who feels he has progressed since his first coaching stint.

"I think I've learned a lot and when I go back to my first year that I had (2001-02), I thought I was completely ready and I wasn't," Laing said. "I'd love to have that group again with the knowledge I have now.

"I've got to get to know these players, just as they've got to get to know me. I think it'll be a growing process as we feel each other out and try to tailor (the system) to fit the skill set that the players bring."

As he discussed his ultimate goal, Laing thought back to the early 2000s, when under previous head coach Charlie Williams and Laing, the Leopards advanced to regionals three times in four seasons (2000-01, 2001-02 and 2003-04).

"We had a pretty good run then and we'd certainly like to get back to approaching that consistency," Laing said. "I think with the talent that's there, that is a reasonable goal."

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