1st Year Girls Coach Leads Golden Gate to Record Season
One winning season, two playoff appearances.
That was it for the Golden Gate High School girls basketball team since the school opened in 2004.
Enter Keri Looker.
The 1997 Barron Collier graduate and longtime Community School assistant has changed the perception of the program.
The Titans have rolled to a program-best 20-3 record and went a perfect 6-0 in Class 6A-District 12 to clinch the top seed in the district tournament. Golden Gate has beaten district foe Barron Collier twice, the first wins over the longtime Collier County and state power in program history.
“I knew we had a good group coming back,” said Looker, who served as the team’s junior varsity and assistant varsity coach the last two seasons. “We were very excited to get the season started. Not sure we expected (20-3), but we knew we’d have a good team.”
The Titans have gotten steady production and leadership from senior guard Darlene “Dee” Charles, a five-time state medalist in track and field committed to the University of Miami. Charles is the team’s scoring leader at 14.9 points per game, also playing lockdown defense with an impressive 4.0 steals per game. Junior guard Carlin Palmer, a co-captain with Charles, is right behind her at 14.8 points a game. Point guard Yuenaria Harvey, a transfer from Kentucky, has been a fine floor general, dishing out 4.3 assists a game while also providing strong rebounding.
“A big part of our success is that not only are they all solid basketball players and fierce competitors, but each one brings a different key strength and they really play well off of each other,” Looker said. “As an entire group, the team has really great chemistry on and off the court.”
But Looker has been the glue that has held it all together, something her players acknowledge.
“She puts it in our mind that we can do anything we put our minds to,” Charles said. “She always gives us a (inspirational) quote every game day. Some of my teammates get discouraged, and she sees that and knows what to say to them. So she is a big help to us mentally.”
Charles said Looker runs tight practices, always focusing on the right workouts and ways to help the team improve.
It’s all part of Looker’s basketball odyssey, one that began at Barron Collier, where she was a standout point guard under coach Lisa Helber (now Lisa Townsend). She earned a scholarship to North Florida, where injuries derailed a promising career. Looker had two knee surgeries in less than two years, and was never quite the same player. But her love for basketball never wavered, and she saw coaching as a way to scratch that basketball itch.
Eventually returning to Naples where she now works from home in marketing and operations for Amenity Pro — a company that contracts massage therapists for casino and hotel resorts throughout Florida — Looker began coaching at the AAU level as a way to stay connected to the game she loved.
“Coaching AAU was kind of an opportunity to get my feet wet,” Looker said. “I’ve been a gym rat since I was 12. I basically lived inside the Naples YMCA. Basketball is something I could never find my way out of. Not all players make great coaches, but I had such a love for the game. I realized at the AAU level I was really passionate about coaching.”
It became evident early she had the knack for teaching the game to young players, and eventually she gained recognition for her ability.
Mitch Woods certainly noticed, going up against Looker’s South Florida Riptide team while his daughter Michelle played for his Southwest Florida Flame. The Flame were led by his daughter, the best player on a pair of Community School state championship teams and later a standout at the University of Miami. Looker’s squad lost the game, but Mitch Woods came away impressed and soon offered her a job as an assistant on his Community School team.
“It was more than Xs and Os with her,” Woods recalled. “You could see it in how her teams played. She was teaching more than places to go on the floor. She was teaching kids how to play basketball and that’s how I like to see it. That’s my philosophy as well, not too much Xs and Os, but more read-and-react type stuff. She does that really well.”
Looker joined Woods’s staff in 2006, serving as the junior varsity coach for two seasons and an assistant varsity coach for all five years she was there. During Looker’s five years with the Seahawks, the team won five district championships and two state titles, going a combined 116-34.
Woods wasn’t afraid to give Looker plenty of responsibilities.
“People who coach with me, I give them full reign,” Woods said. “I want them to feel like they can see anything at any time. They’re coaches, and we want to take advantage of their knowledge and skills. My title was head coach, but she had just as much input in what we were doing and the freedom to express those views, and I listened to them. I’m not surprised at all she’s having success.”
Looker appreciated Woods’ faith in her, and said it helped mold her into the coach she is today.
“Mitch is a great mentor and one of the nicest guys I know of,” Looker said. “He’s very disciplined in the system he likes to run. He runs tight practices, and really focuses on making his girls smart basketball players. Not only play the play, but be instinctual and make something happen.”
Looker’s playing days have helped her relate to players.
“I relate to them because I was them,” she said. “My job is to push them and bring out their full potential, show how important commitment is. Spending that extra time makes a huge difference. You have to really work to be a success, and these girls are getting that. They work really hard, and it’s paying off.”