TAMPA — Mark Key's soon-to-be senior class had been through it all: a district title, a state final four, you name it. But when the Sickles coach took his first look at the Gryphons' future district last spring, he knew his team was in for one of its biggest challenges yet.
This season Sickles, which replaced Chamberlain from the 2012-13 group, joined Steinbrenner, Wiregrass Ranch, Freedom and Gaither in Class 7A, District 8. The Gryphons had been used to competing in a district with just one, maybe two, other teams that could make a run at the title.
In its new home, a title is anybody's for the taking.
"The pressure is tough," Key said about the district. "It's the toughest thing we've ever been involved in."
The five teams in 7A-8 have played each other twice in the regular season. Each time, the outcome between the top four was difficult to predict. Next week when the district tournament begins, the outcome of these matchups will be the only thing that matters to teams eying the postseason.
Aside from top-seeded Steinbrenner (21-3, 7-1), whose only district loss came to Wiregrass Ranch, the results have been all over the board. Freedom (18-4, 4-4) lost to the Bulls (23-2, 6-2) by 12 in December before beating them by 17 a month later.
Likewise, Sickles (17-6, 3-5) beat the Patriots by three in their first meeting but lost by nine in the second.
The coaches appreciate the competition throughout the regular season. After all, tough opponents build tough teams. But when those very teams can keep another from the postseason — only the district champion and runnerup will advance to region play — it's a whole different ball game.
"Two good teams are going to be home," Key said. "We're probably going to go into the district playoffs with four teams that are going to have 20 wins. That's ridiculous."
In addition to just 15 losses between them, all four contenders will bring something different, their not-so-secret weapon, to next week's tournament.
For Steinbrenner, which holds opponents to an average of 28 points per game, it'll be defense. Wiregrass Ranch has the size. Freedom boasts the district's best player in Taylor Emery, a hard-to-stop guard who averages 26 points per game. And Sickles, Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke said, is so well-coached the Gryphons can adapt to it all.
Freedom won the district title last year and made the state semifinals, where it lost to eventual champion Gainesville Buchholz 79-73. This year, Pacholke knows better than to think ahead to the playoffs.
"We don't talk about it," she said. "Any of the four teams that look beyond that first round (of the district tournament) is going to be in trouble."
In the first round Jan. 29, the Patriots will see Wiregrass Ranch, a team against which they've experienced both highs and lows. A loss there, and their season is over.
For those teams that survive, however, the road ahead looks a bit brighter.
"I think the advantage comes in for any of the two teams that go on in regional play, because we've had a fight," Pacholke said. "You can't let off."