Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Prep Sports Report

Will this be Countryside boys basketball’s banner year?

CLEARWATER — Countryside High has a rich athletic history. The boys and girls soccer teams have won state titles. So, too, have the wrestling and softball programs.

There have been Olympic qualifiers, such Jared Frayer in wrestling. And Olympic champions, such as Melanie Margalis in swimming.

Nearly all of these accomplishments are plastered on the walls of the school's gymnasium.

As for the boys basketball team, well, there is not much to display.

The Cougars have never won a state title in the sport. In fact, they have just four playoff appearances, the last district title coming in 1989. And this is a school that produced NBA players Matt Geiger and Andrew DeClercq.

That playoff history, or lack thereof, is changing.

Last season, Countryside made the postseason for the first time since 2001.
This season, the Cougars have already locked up the top seed in the Class 8A, District 10 tournament.

This turnaround is due in large part to stability, both with the coaching staff and the roster.

Jeff Powers is in his fifth season as coach. He has made steady improvement, from four wins his first season to 19 last season.

The Cougars entered the last week of the regular season at 17-5 and had won 11 straight. They are the top-ranked team in the bay area.

"It's been a while since the program had a buzz about around school," Powers said. "This has kind of been a football school for some time and other sports have had a lot of success, too. We've been working hard to be relevant again.

"It's been a long time coming."

The roster is full of veterans. Of the 15 players on varsity, nine are seniors, many of whom have years of playing together.

"These guys have practically grown up together," Powers said. "They were playing even at a young age. Now that most of them are seniors I wanted them to play and compete and hopefully leave a little legacy behind."

CJ Williams is the leader. The 6-foot-2 point guard ranks first on the team in assists (5.8 per game) and is second in points (16.6) and rebounds (6.7).

"We knew what we had a strong group coming back," Williams said. "We have everything in place to accomplish our goals, to win conference, to win districts and hopefully a state title."

There were also some key additions to the lineup. Matthew Berry, a 6-foot-6 forward, transferred from Oldsmar Christian and is averaging a team-leading 17.7 points and 9.4 rebounds.

To win titles, Countryside has to get past a familiar nemesis. Last season, the Cougars beat St. Petersburg twice in the regular season, only to lose to their rival in the district final and region semifinals.

Countryside lost the first meeting this season to the Green Devils on a last-second shot in. Last week, the Cougars won the rematch, a victory that helped them earn the No. 1 seed in the district tournament.

The teams could face each other three more times this season.

"I wouldn't say the win last week was that much of a confidence builder," Williams said. "We already know what it takes to beat St. Petersburg because we did it last year. But we have to keep doing it in order to get where we want."

The aim is for trophies and banners in a gym full of them in other sports.