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When it comes to holiday tournaments, there are two choices for Tampa Bay girls basketball teams.
Stick around town, play in a small-field tournament and sleep in their own beds every night. Or get the heck out of town, play against equal or better competition and sleep in a hotel a few nights.
The decision is easy for teams with state tournament aspirations: Hit the road. And the destination of choice the past few years has been the Queen of the Palms Classic in Fort Myers.
The state’s best teams will be in Lee County on Dec. 28 for the 64-team tournament. Fifty-nine teams from Florida are participating, including local teams Lakewood, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor University, St. Petersburg, Seffner Christian, Riverview, Freedom and Tampa Bay Tech.
There are eight teams in eight divisions, which are decided by last year’s finish and this year’s start. Call it a midseason glimpse into what the postseason will look like, which is why the best schools in the area want to attend.
“It’s good to get out of Pinellas County and play teams from other areas,’’ St. Petersburg High coach Tamika Coley said. “It lets you know where you stand.’’
Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil puts it more bluntly.
“I hope people don’t take it the wrong way, but for the most part in St. Pete our kids get up for the Clearwaters or Boca Ciegas or St. Petes, but after that it’s pretty shallow for us,’’ Tunsil said. “Going on the road to tournaments like this helps keep our kids humble. And it gives them a gauge to see how good they really are.’’
Lakewood went 1-2 at the Queen of the Palms last year, then won the Class 4A state championship. The Spartans are the only returning state champion in the tournament.
The place to be
There was a time in the 1990s and early 2000s when the Hooters Holiday tournament in St. Petersburg attracted a quality boys and girls field. But that tournament faded away.
Then came Queen of the Palms, an offshoot of the City of Palms boys tournament that is going on this week in Fort Myers. The latter attracts an elite field of 24 teams from across the country.
Queen of the Palms spreads its 64 teams into three high school gyms. Of the 59 state teams, 32 made the playoffs last year.
The tournament also has some tough out-of-state teams. Lakewood’s opening opponent, Reynoldsburg (Ohio), advanced to the Sweet 16 last season in the state’s top division. Jackson County (Tenn.) has won six state titles in 12 years and is favored to do it again this year. Lake Region (Maine), Archbishop Ryan (Pa.) and Sacred Heart (Ky.) were all playoff contenders last year.
“You get to see different styles of basketball than you would normally see in Hillsborough,’’ said Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke, whose team opens with Southwest Ranches Archbishop McCarthy near Fort Lauderdale. “Like, our first-round opponent has three girls who are going to play Division I next year. You don’t get to see teams like that in the regular part of the schedule.’’
Another reason to head south is to give players a chance to shine against high-level competition. College coaches are sure to be lining the gyms in Fort Myers. Play well at this tournament and it will not go unnoticed.
“It does give kids good exposure,’’ Pacholke said. “For kids who are thinking about playing at the next level, this tournament is a showcase atmosphere. (College) coaches call me sometimes and ask what a good game would be to come and see. I tell them there is maybe one or two games.
“But at this tournament, they are all good games. You can just sit in one gym and see quality competition.’’
Aside from competition and exposure, teams are going to find out just how good they really are before the second half of the season. Is Palm Harbor University as good as its 10-1 record? Is Riverview as good as its 11-0 record? Can 8-1 Seffner Christian hang with the big schools?
Tunsil already has experience leaving the county to play better schools this season. The Spartans lost badly to Hollywood Christian and Miami Norland on a weekend trip three weeks ago.
She has learned that losing in a regular-season tournament only makes a team stronger for the postseason.
“Going down to Miami and getting our heads beat in did us some good,’’ Tunsil said. “It was a brutal wake-up call. But we’ve matured during that time. Maybe we go down (to Fort Myers) and lose some games again, but we’ll learn from it if we do.’’
Queen of the Palms Classic
When/Where: Dec. 28-30, Dunbar, Lehigh and Cypress Lake High Schools, Fort Myers
Format: 64 teams, Eight separate brackets of eight teams. Champions crowned in each bracket.
Local teams: Lakewood, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor University, Seffner Christian, Riverview, Freedom, Tampa Bay Tech, St. Petersburg.
For a list of local tournaments over the next few weeks, go here.