Any discussion about Pinellas County girls basketball this season begins and ends with Lakewood. The Spartans are loaded (again), have a chance at a state championship (again) and are beating area opponents by 50-plus points (again).
But there are plenty of other teams out there who have exciting players and will be worth watching. Keep an eye on Boca Ciega, St. Petersburg, Palm Harbor University, East Lake, Tarpon Springs and Indian Rocks Christian.
Gibbs, Countryside and Calvary Christian are expected to be much improved.
And then there is Clearwater, which is always in the conversation. Whether loaded with talent or loaded with newcomers, Tornadoes coach Tom Shaneyfelt usually seems to have his team competitive.
This season’s team is a mixture of returners and reserves. Point guard Alex Alford, center Aja Jenkins and guard/forward Tyra Bolden are back from last year’s team that went 22-7 and advanced to the Class 7A region final.
Clearwater is already off to a 2-0 start and had impressive wins over Boca Ciega and Indian Rocks Christian in the preseason.
“I think the kids are expecting to be in the hunt for conference and district and beyond,’’ Shaneyfelt said. “We’re not lowering the bar, that’s for sure.’’
Aside from his big three returners, junior guard/forward Deja Blunt and sophomore guard/forward Maddie Rubino also return after getting playing time last season. Shaneyfelt said senior guard Keyaira Herring has also looked good in the early season.
Bolden has been bothered by a hamstring injury and is easing back into the lineup. Injuries definitely worry Shaneyfelt this season.
“We’ve got three kids who are arguably as good at their positions as most teams around,’’ Shaneyfelt said. “What we don’t have is as much depth as we used to have. That’s why it’s important to stay healthy.’’
If the Tornadoes do that, they should able to pull off another postseason run.
“It helps to have that core of players back,’’ Shaneyfelt said. “We’re playing pretty well. Our kids know the stuff pretty well so we just want to keep building on that.’’
Players to watch
G Alex Alford, Jr., Clearwater: Already off to a fast start, Alford averaged 11.8 points in the Tornadoes’ first four games, including preseason.
F Tianah Alvarado, Sr., Lakewood: Missed most of last year with a knee injury. Alvarado, who committed to Seton Hall, is an explosive guard with good scoring ability.
G/F Tyra Bolden, Sr., Clearwater: Currently recovering from a hamstring injury, Bolden is expected to make a big impact when she returns.
C Rachel Boyette, Sr., Indian Rocks Christian: At 6-foot-3, Boyette will be a force inside for the Golden Eagles.
F Destiny Brown, Sr., Boca Ciega: Hampered by an ankle injury, Brown is a solid scorer and rebounder when healthy.
F Kasey Drayton, Sr., Lakewood: A smooth-shooting forward who can also play physical under the basket. She has committed to Alabama-Birmingham.
G/F Megan Ingram, So., Palm Harbor University: Now out of Kristine Fuller’s shadow, Ingram could emerge as the next big scorer for the Hurricanes.
G Kadejah Saunders, Sr., Tarpon Springs: A transfer from Gulf High, Saunders averaged 16.8 points per game as a junior. She will bolster a good Spongers roster.
G/F Meagan Thomas, Jr., Dixie Hollins: Thomas averaged 24.9 points as a sophomore despite facing double teams. She’ll face them again this season and still lead the Rebels in scoring.
G/F Niaya White, Fr., Boca Ciega: The daughter of former Boca Ciega and Florida State basketball player David White, she is both a scorer and ball handler. Plays the point until teammate Destiny Brown returns from an ankle injury.
1. Lakewood: Spartans are loaded with seniors Kasey Drayton, Alexis Ungro, Tianah Alvarado and Sydney Heyward. Also got transfers Deja Swinton from St. Petersburg and Aliyah Frazer from Pinellas Park.
2. Clearwater: A strong nucleus returns, including seniors Tyra Bolden and Aja Jenkins, and junior Alex Alford.
3. Boca Ciega: Pirates coach Michael Hall knows he’s not in Lakewood’s bracket yet, but his team is plenty talented.
4. Tarpon Springs: Seniors Yasmine Morris and Kadejah Saunders will make a big impact for the Spongers.
5. Palm Harbor University: Life after Kristine Fuller looks bright. Talented players like Megan Ingram, Kaylin Ingram, Jamie Appelt, Chardonay Aldrich and Shauna Gillooly provide lots of depth.
6. St. Petersburg: Despite losing Deja Swinton, the Green Devils still have talented players like Angel Brown, Jordan Berenbaum and Michael Everhart.
7. Indian Rocks Christian: Coach Phil Farver has a district championship-caliber team this season. Center Rachel Boyette, along with guards Brooke and Hayley Morten and freshman forward Autumn Frost, will be hard for opponents to deal with.
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.