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By the sixth week of the season, a Boca Ciega-Gibbs matchup in the Class 5A, District 12 boys basketball tournament seemed a foregone conclusion. The Pirates and the Gladiators were the top teams and furlongs ahead of the pack, not only in their district, but conference as well.
Then came the tournaments during winter break, a time when struggling teams can turn around their seasons. Suddenly, upstarts started claiming the spotlight.
Perhaps, no team helped itself more than Northeast. The Vikings are in the same district as Boca Ciega and Gibbs. The Pirates and Gladiators were among the teams invited to Northeast’s Christmas Invitational and many expected the two to play in the championship.
It never happened.
The Vikings knocked off Gibbs in the semifinals and stayed within striking distance of Boca Ciega before falling in overtime in the title game.
For a team that has not the made the playoffs since 1998 and entered its own tournament with a 4-5 record, Northeast has the confidence it can compete for a postseason berth despite playing in one of the county’s toughest districts.
“This is what we needed,” Vikings coach Dave Redding said. “We came on in the tournament and that gave us a lift. But I’ve tried to preach to the team that this can’t be the peak of our season.”
Northeast has relied on the inside presence of forward Andres Sanchez to stay in most games. Sanchez, who led the county in rebounding the past two seasons, is averaging nearly 23 points per game.
“This is the most talented team we’ve had, but I know I still have to be the glue,” Sanchez said. “The tournament was big for us because we now have the mind-set that we can play with any team on any given night.”
Since their appearance in the tournament title game, the Vikings have had a brutal schedule with games against Tarpon Springs and Boca Ciega. Northeast lost both and is now 6-9. The Vikings travel to Gibbs in a district and conference game tonight.
“We’ve had to go on the road this week and play in front of big crowds,” Sanchez said. “People are going to look to see if our performance was a fluke. We have to show whether we’re the real deal or not.”
Another team that made significant strides recently is Tarpon Springs. The Spongers dropped their first two games of the season and started 3-4.
But Tarpon Springs rebounded with five straight wins before playing in the Indian Rocks Christian Holiday Tournament. The momentum continued as the Spongers nabbed a 64-59 victory over Lake Mary Prep in the championship game.
Now, Tarpon Springs’ win streak has stretched to 10 games after an 80-66 victory over Clearwater, a region finalist last season, on Wednesday. It is the first time the Spongers have beaten the Tornadoes in ages.
Tarpon Springs’ turnaround has been keyed by their two big guys, C.J. Mackey and C.J. Bargman.
Mackey was the MVP of the Indian Rocks Christian tournament after scoring 20 against Lake Mary Prep in the final. Bargman had a team-high 20 against Clearwater.
The Spongers (13-4) face Clearwater again on Monday with the winner having the inside track for the top seed in Class 5A-11.
By rising to the top of the district, Tarpon Springs could have a shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and just the fourth time in the past 33 years.
If the Spongers do, they can point back to a December turnaround that was buoyed by their title in a holiday tournament.