HOLIDAY — Anclote’s historic fall has turned into a successful winter.
Three months after the Sharks made the first football playoff appearance in school history, the boys basketball team with its strong senior class makes its postseason debut Thursday in a Class 5A region quarterfinal at Nature Coast (23-3).
“Finally,” senior guard Chris Palamidis said.
The road to the playoffs began before the school opened. The Sharks’ nucleus of seniors has played together since seventh grade.
They trained together in the summers and mastered the system during the winters.
That experience helped power Anclote (16-10) through an 0-3 start, including a 66-35 drubbing to the NCT team that looms Thursday.
“These seniors, they definitely wanted to prove something this year,” Sharks coach Jason Szymanski said.
That dedication was evident in the fall. The Sharks are the first North Suncoast team since Wiregrass Ranch (2011-12) to make the postseason in football and boys basketball.
Some of the key players from Anclote’s postseason run in the autumn are the same ones who will take the court tonight. Ty and Shy Carter were all-conference football talents and combine for 20 points and 14 rebounds per game. Senior Luis Perez averages 5.2 points and intercepted four passes at cornerback, and senior quarterback John Forgione also sees time at guard.
The reasons for success remain the same, regardless of sport: Senior leadership that spent four years building a program from the ground up. For Szymanski’s team, that meant Perez, Palamidis and Dylan Walsh had to ascend from role players to strong voices in the locker room.
“Between those three seniors, they made sure that everyone around them was going to play to the level that they wanted,” Szymanski said. “Then they led by example.”
They didn’t have much of a choice. Last year’s top player, Brandon McWhorter, graduated, and standout guard Chris Gregory moved out of the state. That left the Sharks without a go-to scorer and forced them to adapt with balance.
Six players average between 5.2 and 10.2 points per game — the Carter twins, Perez, Palamidis, Walsh and junior Drew Driscoll — and the team takes pride in an even box score because everyone contributes to the victories.
“All of us came from role and bench players,” Walsh said. “We became an actual team.”
Anclote’s football season ended with a first-round loss to Gainesville Eastside, and the Sharks have a tough task if they want to avoid a similar fate. NCT advanced to the state semifinals last season and earned two double-digit victories over Anclote this winter.
Regardless of when or how the Sharks’ season ends, Szymanski credited his senior class for sticking with the program for four years and lifting it to new heights.
“It’s the first class that’s been here all four years,” Szymanski said. “This is their school, and they definitely wanted to prove to everyone else that we’re not a laughingstock. We can do this. We can compete. And here we are.”
Rest of Thursday’s region quarterfinals
Class 7A, Wiregrass Ranch (20-7) at St. Petersburg (18-7): Chris Parra, Rico Kerney and the Bulls must bounce back from a disappointing 10-point loss to Chamberlain in the district finals. Wiregrass did just that after the last rough defeat, avenging a heartbreaker against Wesley Chapel to knock off Freedom and advance to the playoffs.
Class 6A, Land O’Lakes (11-12) at Winter Haven (18-10): The Blue Devils blew out Mitchell by 42 points in last year’s playoff opener. Things might not be easier for Mike and Victor Obi and the Gators.
Class 6A, Lakeland Kathleen (18-9) at Mitchell (20-7): The Mustangs have a rotating cast of stars, including Ryan Doherty, who had 23 points off the bench to give Mitchell the district championship. Kathleen will be a tough challenge.
Class 5A, Eustis (17-9) at Wesley Chapel (24-4): Eustis remains loaded and athletic, but the Wildcats boast Tampa Bay’s most prolific player, forward Erik Thomas. Wesley Chapel could earn its first playoff win since 2004.
Class 2A, Academy at the Lakes (14-12) at Lake Wales Vanguard (14-2): Ethan Haslam and the Wildcats knocked off Vanguard 49-48 in last year’s playoff opener and will get another stiff challenge from a team ranked ninth in the state.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.