Last season featured a handful of North Suncoast boys basketball highlights, including Nature Coast’s run to the state semifinals and the rise of upstart Academy at the Lakes. So, as the season opens this week, what’s in store for this winter?
Six questions to be answered
Can anyone reach the final four? The North Suncoast has had two teams make state in the past four years — Springstead (2009) and Nature Coast (2012). The Sharks finally broke through last winter after years of close calls but lose a loaded senior class, including UMass freshman Tyler Bergantino, the Times’ all-Suncoast player of the year. The hopes of a return to Lakeland for NCT and the rest of the North Suncoast don’t look promising.
How will Academy at the Lakes deal with success? Tom Haslam’s Wildcats were strong in 2011-12, finishing 17-10 and advancing to the Class 2A region finals. The core of that team returns, including standout guard Ethan Haslam, who averaged 18.4 points per game as a freshman and earned second-team all-North Suncoast honors. A young AATL team will get a boost from transfers Malik Hall (Wiregrass Ranch) and DeAndre Williams (Wharton) and should be on track for another run at the district title.
Can Hudson keep up the momentum? The Cobras have quietly become one of Tampa Bay’s most consistent teams, with four recent playoff appearances and more winning records in the past five seasons (four) than the program’s previous 35 years (two). Coach Jason Vetter lost four senior starters, including standout guard Jamal Branco, but has plenty of talent. Seniors Bryce Durham and Zack Petersen form one of Pasco County’s top back courts and will keep Hudson in the playoff hunt again.
Can River Ridge turn itself around? The Royal Knights struggled almost all of last season, earning only one win before picking things up after assistant Chuck Butler became the acting head coach. River Ridge knocked off Fivay to close the regular season, upset Tarpon Springs in the first round of the district tournament and scared Land O’Lakes before falling in the district semifinals. The key was 6-foot-9 center John Childs, who had a triple double against the Gators and picked up offers from Jacksonville and American University in the offseason. He should be in for a monster junior year — he scored 24 points in a season-opening win over Citrus — on a program ripe for improvement.
Who will be the top dog in Wesley Chapel? Cross-town rivals Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch were two of Pasco County’s top programs last winter. Rico Kerney (Wiregrass) and Erik Thomas (Wesley Chapel) earned first-team all-North Suncoast honors by rewriting school record books on playoff teams. Last year’s matchup between the schools was intense — a 91-89 Wildcats win in overtime. Both teams should again be playoff contenders — and in for a thriller in their Feb. 1 showdown.
Is Mitchell the team to beat? The Mustangs were one of Pasco County’s top teams last year, finishing runnerup in Class 6A, District 10 before losing to a powerhouse, Winter Haven, in the region quarterfinals. Mitchell’s only major loss is star guard Jake Driscoll, but coach Jared St. Charles’ team was 8-4 when Driscoll was out with an injury last winter. Senior Jordan Dong (11 ppg), juniors Bernie Conley (7 ppg) and Ryan Doherty (9 ppg) and two 6-foot-5 transfers will lead a deep lineup that will be one of the favorites in the Sunshine Athletic Conference.
Teams to watch
Ridgewood: The Rams compiled a 15-12 record last fall thanks to balanced scoring but have a new coach (Derek Delgardo). Shooters Tristan Ficarro and Adam Ibrahim both made more than 40 percent of their 3-point attempts last winter, and keep an eye on Max Livingstone, a track star and tight end who will inherit the post position from Tony Hays.
Gulf: The Bucs hovered near .500 last winter but had a rough offseason with the departure of coach Jeff Shank amidst a scandal. Travis Priddy takes over a team with some solid athleticism, including junior Joey Nickerson and sophomore Keyshawn Peterson, that could be in for a breakout year.
Springstead: The Eagles have a new coach (Tim Plumadore) and lots of youth. Juniors Devonte Valentin, Aaron Waddy and Wilfred Pagan and sophomore Reid Bozarth are some of the top talents on a defense-oriented team trying to grow.
Land O’Lakes: The Gators were district champions last winter but lost their three leading scorers. If Land O’Lakes hopes to repeat, it will need a strong season from senior center Victor Obi (7.0 points, 7.0 rebounds per game).
Players to watch
Rohan Blackwood, Nature Coast: ESPN calls the 6-foot-5 forward a three-star prospect and the state’s No. 20 junior, and the defensive end/receiver already has a football offer from UMass. He averaged 8.0 points and 7.5 rebounds last winter while learning the Sharks’ system and had 20 points in their season opener this year.
Potosky, Bishop McLaughlin: The 6-foot-4 forward averaged 11.7 points and 10.1 rebounds as a freshman. He’ll be a key part of a big lineup under new coach Evan Gerking.
Ra’shaad Hart, Hernando: The junior averaged 10 points and 7.0 rebounds after becoming academically eligible last winter. The Leopards’ quarterback is extremely athletic and will lead a team that won 11 of its last 17 games in 2012.
Tymere and Shymere Carter, Anclote: The standout receivers will look to keep going after breakout junior seasons in football. They combined for 26 points in a season-opening loss to East Lake this week.
Chris Parra, Wiregrass Ranch: The sharpshooting senior guard has already scored more than 1,000 points in his career. He’ll look to improve on an honorable mention all-North Suncoast junior season.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Matt HomeTeam.