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Mon. January 4, 2010 | John C. Cotey | Email

High school basketball season starts this week.
In earnest.
Okay, fine, you got me. Technically, it started months ago. But did anyone notice?
Football now drags into December, or Dec. 19 to be exact, because Plant keeps winning state titles. Then schools are released on holiday break, and our local hoopsters scatter to tournaments across the state.
Then … this week happens.
The start of basketball season.
Still not buying it? Fine. But let’s play a little catch-up anyway.
Biggest boys surprise
Wharton didn’t have a single player make the Times’ all-Suncoast team last season, even as an honorable mention. Of their three leading scores — Xavier Owens, Damian Dixon and A.J. Astroth — none averaged even a dozen points.
This season: Owens, Dixon and Astroth are all averaging better than 15, and the Wildcats have been amazing in getting out to a 16-1 start.
Welcome back, Tommy Tonelli. The Wildcats coach averaged 20 wins a season in his first 10-year stint and returned this year after two years at USF to lead Wharton back near the top of the Hillsborough heap.
Coincidence? Hardly.
Biggest girls surprise
Tampa Bay Tech is 12-2 with every win by double digits, but I am more surprised that Boca Ciega is 13-1.
Sure, the Pirates were a final four team last year and return sharp-shooting duo Tamara Taylor and Latavia Dempsey, but graduation losses were significant and many expected some early-season struggles resulting from starting three freshmen, including coach Will White.
So far, however, so good.
Random thought No. 1
On the girls side, an all-star team of Hillsborough County’s underclassmen would beat an all-star team of the seniors by 25 points.
Best boys streak
The Osceola boys lost 53 straight games under three different coaches over the past three seasons until Dec. 29, when the Warriors beat Dunedin 57-33. Coach Jeremy Crane thinks it could be the start of something, but most importantly, it’s the end of something pretty awful.
Best girls streak
Tampa Catholic (14-1) has realistic visions of clinching a state championship. Winning nine straight, including a victory over 13-1 Father Lopez to win a tournament last week, to close out 2009 is a nice step in that direction. The Crusaders have four players averaging in double figures in points, five averaging more than four rebounds a game and five averaging more than two steals a game. They will be mighty tough to stop.
Random thought No. 2
Sickles was 14-3 last season through 17 games. Standout center John Henson graduated to North Carolina. Sickles is 16-1 this year through 17 games. How did that happen?
Boys sleepers (hush)
Well, since we used Sickles and Wharton already, keep your eyes on Gibbs (in a district that’s supposed to belong to Largo-Bogie) and St. Petersburg (only Wharton stands in the way of a Class 6A region final).
Girls sleepers (shhhhh)
Freedom hired former Land O’Lakes coach Laurie Pacholke and got her two daughters (starting point guard Kaitlynn and Nenna) in the deal, and combined with junior Shaunice Hobbs (19.5 ppg, 8.7 rebounds) it’s little surprise the Patriots are 14-2. They get another crack at Sickles, which beat the Patriots 46-38 already, next week.
Random thought No. 3
Wharton’s Shayla Cooper and Tesha Hanson, Blake’s Erica Young, Bogie’s Alexis Ungro and Lakewood’s Kasey Drayton and Tianah Alvarado would make my all-freshman team today.
Best boys teams
Wharton and Sickles are both 16-1, each handing the other its only loss. Are they both better than Clearwater, the preseason consensus No. 1? The Tornadoes are only 10-5, but clearly their best ball is ahead of them. Call me crazy, but if I had to rank them today based on what I think happens tomorrow: 1. Clearwater; 2. Wharton; 3. Sickles; 4. Tampa Prep; 5. Largo.
Best girls teams
Clearwater beat Lakewood, but was beaten by Tampa Catholic, which was beaten by Sickles, which was beaten by Jefferson. However, the Dragons enter 2010 with a three-game losing streak, and because I think Sickles would beat Tampa Catholic again, I’m going here: 1. Sickles; 2. Tampa Catholic; 3. Jefferson; 4. Boca Ciega; 5. Clearwater.
Random thought No. 4
I think two Tampa Bay area teams win state championships this season. I like the Tampa Catholic girls and Clearwater boys, but don’t hate me if the Tampa Prep boys win one instead of the Tornadoes.
First-half boys MVP
Clearwater’s Okaro White is ranked No. 1 in the area by everyone, but Sickles’ Jordan Davis has been the most vital to his team’s success. The Gryphons point guard scored 24 and handed out eight assists in a win over Wharton this season and has otherwise been a steady force for surprising Sickles. Of course, this could just as easily go to teammate Rashawn Rembert, who has almost tripled last season’s 8.0 ppg average.
My ballot might look like this: 1. Davis; 2. Damian Dixon, Wharton; 3. Rembert; 4. Breon Bostic, Largo.
First-half girls MVP
There’s a glut of choices for this one. Do you know how many teams in Tampa Bay already have more than a dozen wins? Around a dozen. But the best player so far this season?
Sickles’ Amber Henson.
That’s an easy one.
My ballot: 1. Henson; 2. Jerica Coley, St. Petersburg Catholic; 3. Tamara Taylor, Boca Ciega.

Photo: Sickles' Jordan Davis

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