The Plant City-area prep boys basketball teams weren't shy about upping the competition level during the holidays. Strawberry Crest, Plant City and Durant all went outside the county to test their mettle.
None went farther, nor picked up more victories, than the Chargers. After reaching the finals of the Bright House Networks Tournament at Clearwater High, Strawberry Crest went to Miami for the Adidas Holiday Slam.
Chargers coach Andre Lewis said his team could have easily put up another 2-1 performance as it did in Clearwater but had two key players miss the final game, a 53-38 loss to Piper High of Sunrise. Karel Hamilton sprained his ankle during a win over tourney host Florida Christian the previous night, and Dominick Trigg was out with flu-like symptoms.
But with those two on the court — and they are expected to be back when the regular season resumes Tuesday — the Chargers (11-7) look primed for a second straight playoff appearance.
Smooth senior Devin Diggs has been as advertised but has received a mildly surprising challenge for the team's scoring lead from junior Malik Channer.
"Malik has been playing very well at point guard for us, and Karel has been doing whatever it takes, he doesn't care how many points he has," Lewis said.
Showing how well they can function together when at their prime, the Chargers knocked off a strong Mitchell team in the first round of the Bright House tournament, then blew out the hosts 73-48 in the semifinals. However, Berkeley proved formidable for Strawberry Crest, winning 75-49 in the championship game.
While most teams would be happy making the finals of such a tournament, Lewis held higher expectations.
"We didn't play how I'd hoped (against Berkeley), we went 1-for-17 on three-pointers and that's not us," he said.
This year Strawberry Crest is in the running for the top seed in District 6A-11 but will need Armwood to knock off Sickles Jan. 11. Otherwise the Chargers will likely have to beat Armwood, a team they've split with, in the district semis just to reach the postseason.
Raiders need to become road warriors
Though Plant City and Durant both have losing records entering the final month of the season, their head coaches feel that's enough time to improve into a playoff qualifier.
Plant City is 4-9 overall, having gone 1-1 in last week's four-team tournament in Lakeland. The trip reinforced a concern of Raider coach Dale Chambers.
"We're just a little bit fragile on the road. We have to work on that," he said, pointing to the fact the Raiders were trailing host George Jenkins by 10 in the fourth quarter of the championship game before falling 61-35. Plant City has yet to pick up a "true" road win all year though it did defeat Mulberry in the first round of the Jenkins event.
Recently the Raiders hosted and defeated Tampa Bay Tech, just three weeks after losing to the Titans in Tampa. District co-leader Brandon dominated the Raiders 61-33 in its gym, but Plant City put forth a much better effort losing by five at home.
Good thing for the Raiders, who have been led by Dylan Parm and Chris Collins, is they host the District 7A-8 tournament Feb. 5-8.
"Our goal is to win our last three district games and get to 5-5," Chambers said.
Plant City resumes play Tuesday at Hillsborough.
Cougars look to turn close losses into wins
Durant had a record-boosting trip to St. Petersburg for its post-Christmas tournament, losing its opener in a close one to Countryside before defeating Dunedin and (Jacksonville) Creekside. The Cougars are 5-9, but the three-point loss to Countryside is just the latest example of how close Trent Tice's team is to having a winning record.
"Oh we've had four or five games we could have easily won," Tice said.
The Cougars are 1-6 in the very competitive District 8A-7, but have played each of the other five teams close, with the exception of a blowout against Plant. Durant resumes action Tuesday when it hosts Alonso.