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Next level: Beckham headed to GHS

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By Jenna McKenna

Bronson Eagles’ head basketball coach Kelly Beckham announced Thursday that he will leave Bronson Middle-High School, where he has been for nearly 25 years and more than 500 wins, for Gainesville High School.

Beckham will finish out the school year at Bronson, and start at GHS in the new school year.

His academic duties at GHS will be largely similar to those at Bronson — he will be a Dean of Students. What will change the most is the basketball. 5A GHS has about 2,000 students; Bronson, in class 2A, has 453 or fewer.

The position opened late this winter, after GHS head coach Tony Wise announced he was leaving. The Hurricanes reached the Final Four this past year, before losing 61-38 to Dillard. The team he leaves is largely intact, returning six of seven key players to this year’s squad, including two-time Gainesville Sun player of the year, junior Greg Gantt.

In a telephone interview with the Beacon, Beckham said it would be hard to leave Bronson, but that the new position represents “an opportunity I can’t pass up.”

Beckham said he had just learned last Wednesday evening that he was being offered the position, and said that he met with his team, coaches, and other Bronson faculty early Thursday.

As much as he is a part of Bronson High School, he said he felt that most understood the reason for his leaving.

Beckham is renowned for taking smaller teams, frequently with inexperienced players, well into the middle rounds of state series prep basketball. In 2006-2007, after losing five starters near the beginning of the season, Beckham led a team with only one senior to the regional semifinal, losing at last to private powerhouse Arlington Country Day.

Beckham has made no secret of his dislike of pitting legitimate small public schools against equal-size private schools that draw population and talent from almost unlimited geographic areas. Moving to 5A Gainesville will put him among almost exclusively public high school competition. He will also have a larger pool of student athletes for his own teams.

“The upside to moving to GHS is that it allows me to play the game the way I love to play it,” he said. “Uptempo, full-court press, man-to-man, the fast-paced game.”

Beckham will miss Bronson, and be missed there.

Asked how players and boosters would put his leaving in perspective, he said, “You have to understand that there’s always going to be some change in your life. It’s hard on the players, but it’s hard on me as well. This group of young men we’re returning next year at Bronson is one of the finest I’ve ever coached.”

Bronson principal Valerie Boughanem said she faced an incredibly tough project on two counts – “Replacing our head basketball coach and replacing our dean.”

“Kelly Beckham has made basketball legendary at Bronson,” she said. “Finding a suitable basketball coach will be very hard. But it will also be very hard to find a good dean. Mr. Beckham has been here 24 years and he knows everybody.”

Boughanem says a community search committee is being formed, with Beckham’s help, and an ad will be placed on the Florida High School Athletic Association website.

“I would expect we would have a fair number of applicants. Coach Beckham has built up Bronson basketball to what it is, and I would think some coaches would want to take it even further.”

Looking immediately to Beckham’s staff at Bronson, varsity assistant coach Phillip Knight said Friday that he would not be pursuing the head coaching opportunity.

“I have a four-year-old, and the time it requires to be an effective head coach would take away from my time with him,” Knight said. “The timing just isn’t right. If Nick were 10 or 11, I would be the first in line, begging for the opportunity. But maybe later on.”

Bronson JV and middle school coaches Kenny Thomas and Al Herndon could not be reached as of press time to determine whether they had any interest in the position.

Former Bronson players Chris Cowart and Aaron Haldeman, currently the girls’ and boys’ varsity head coaches (respectively) at Cedar Key High School, both played for Beckham in the 1990s, but both said they were very satisfied in their current positions.

“I’m really happy where I’m at,” said Cowart. “With what I have going on, this is the ideal situation for me. As much love as I have for Bronson High School, that wouldn’t be the best move for me.”

“They’ll have some big shoes to fill,” said Haldeman, who added that he felt the move to GHS would represent a good challenge for Beckham.

“It’s a good change for him,” he said. “This will take him out of his comfort zone, and that’s just the way he likes it. He’s always looking to do more.”