Many coaches who have won championships eventually go in search of new challenges. Derrick Akal has decided instead to seek an additional challenge.
Akal, who hopes to lead the Harlan Lady Dragons to a second straight girls 13th Region championship next season, will start his next job while he continues his current one. Akal was named the new boys basketball coach at Harlan High School on Thursday and will remain the girls coach for one more year. Akal hasn’t coached boys since he served two years as an assistant under Mike Jones at Harlan County High School in 2009 and 2010.
“I’ve been coaching the girls the last six years, so it will be adjustment, but I’m looking forward to coaching boys again,” Akal said.
“After learning that coach Akal did not intend to continue coaching girls basketball after the upcoming season that changed the dynamic,” said Harlan High School Principal Britt Lawson. “Obviously, we want the very best for both programs and recognize what coach Akal brings to the table. It was a proposition worth exploring and in the end, his passion, desire and commitment to providing competitive programs was overwhelming. We expect nothing but the best and will fully support coach Akal in this endeavor. He recognizes the challenges ahead.”
Akal will be one of only a handful of coaches in Kentucky who coach who lead both the boys and girls basketball teams at the same time. There were only three coaches in the state last year who led two teams (Christian Fellowship, McLean County and Riverside Christian). No one has been head coach of both at the same time in Harlan County, but Jones came close. He was the girls coach at Cawood High School in 1982 and 1983 while also working as the boys assistant coach under Kirk Chiles. He took over as the head boys coach to begin the 1984 season and left the girls program.
“I’ll admit this is somewhat unusual in this day and age of high school programs, but after listening to his passion, desire and watching coach Akal over the last several years it is clear to everyone that he is exceptional at what he does. He is a proven winner who has taken our Lady Dragon program to the next level, and we are going to support him in this next challenge.” said Harlan Independent Schools Superintendent C.D. Morton. “As a parent of an upcoming senior and an incoming freshmen on the boys program and a girl who played for coach Akal last year in the middle school, change is difficult. At the end of the day you simply want the very best available for all students, and coach Akal is a proven winner.”
Akal has a plan for how he will juggle the two jobs.
“I’m looking at it as two separate programs,” he said. “The time I’m with the girls, I’m the girls coach. The time I’m with the boys, I’m the boys coach. We’ll deal with some of the things as we get there.
“The sacrifice and time will be on me. The kids will get the same things they’ve always gotten. They will get two hours of practice every day and play about 30 games a year. For me, I don’t see much difference. This is a one-year thing. I will transition over to just being the boys coach for 2017-18.”
Akal says the Dragons’ style next season will depend on their personnel.
“I have to see the boys play first. I have to adjust the style to the personnel we have,” Akal said. “I want to see the talent level and work ethic. At the end of the day, you have to guard and rebound. That’s universal. The style, however, will depend on a bunch of variables.”
The Harlan girls schedule is almost complete for next year, but the boys schedule is not nearly as far along, and Akal said he would work to limit conflicts where both teams play on the same night at different places.
Akal has posted a 121-67 record in six years as the Lady Dragons’ head coach, leading Harlan to the regional finals the past three years and to the Sweet Sixteen this past season. Akal was named the 13th Region Coach of the Year by the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches and was also coach of the year in the Southeastern Kentucky Conference.
Harlan will remain one of the regional favorites despite losing two starters (Brooklyn Massingill and Katie King). All-state guard Jordan Brock and forward Emma Bianchi will return for their senior seasons and forward Mackenzie King is back for her junior year.
Akal will face a much tougher task as the new leader of a boys program that hasn’t won a district title or a game in the regional tournament since Donnie Harville was the coach in 2000.
The Dragons have posted only three winning seasons over the past 16 years, but two of those were in the past three years. David Parks led Harlan to a 15-13 record in 2014 and a 15-14 mark this past year. The Dragons lost in the first round of the district tournament for the 11th straight time when they fell to Bell County in late February.
Harlan loses guards Drew Parks, Caleb Hogue and Robbie Curry to graduation. Junior guard Noah Busroe, junior forward Trent McKenzie and freshman guard Kilian Ledford are returning starters. Junior guard Ethan Morton saw extensive action off the bench last season, and sophomore forward Kendal Brock played a lot late in the year. Several freshmen from a successful junior varsity will also be in the mix, including Tate Bryson, Cade Barnes, Caleb Adkins, Carter Barnes, Jarrett McKenzie, Logan Taylor and Andrew Simpson.
“The girls program was a process that the boys will have to through,” Akal said. “The boys have to learn my language and who I am. I have to learn who those guys are. It will be a process.”
Paul Hearld will return as an assistant for the boys team, Akal said. The staff will also include Will Clem, a former middle school girls coach at Harlan who also served as a boys assistant coach at Cawood in the 1990s. Both Hearld and Clem are former Cawood guards. Akal said a third assistant coach would be added later.
Akal was a former standout guard at Cumberland High School, graduating in 1984. He played on the final Lynch High School team in 1981 as a freshman before moving on to Cumberland. He then signed with Tennessee Wesleyan and was a three-year starter before beginning his career in the military.
He returned to Harlan County in 2002 and was an assistant the last six years the school was open before the consolidation to form Harlan County High School. He was on Bill Scott’s staff in 2003 when Cumberland won the 13th Region title. He coached with Jerry Edwards for three years, including 2007 when the Redskins won their last 13th Region All “A” Classic title.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134