Tampa Catholic coach Nancy Kroll admits she didn't think she'd have the caliber of teams to compete with some of the bay area's big-school powers.
But after the Crusaders' first FHSAA final four run last season in Class 3A, Kroll's preseason goal was to schedule games with the likes of Clearwater and Sickles.
And win or lose, Kroll expects those tests to help Tampa Catholic return to states in search of the school's first title.
"We had a great season last year and in order to duplicate that, you almost have to work twice as hard because the expectations are high and now everyone is gunning for you," Kroll said. "I think the senior leadership will rise to the occasion."
Tampa Catholic is now on the bay area map, evidenced by the teams that have stuck around to watch the Crusaders play in the preseason.
"Most of us have been there before so we know what we're doing," senior Sarah Brennan said. "We have a lot to live up to. Everyone I think knows Tampa Catholic now."
The Crusaders return four starters — including the Times' Hillsborough County first-team selections Colette Eule and Brennan. And they replace four-year letterman point guard Annie Dziagwa with Land O'Lakes transfer Megan Keough, who averaged a double double last season as a sophomore and is getting looks from the likes of Wake Forest.
"I think we're still trying to mesh and get it to flow every way we want it to," Eule said.
But add in shooting guard Micah Kroll, who shot 54 percent from 3-point range, and inside presence Kai Jones — both of whom fit Kroll's frenetic pace — and the Crusaders have all the pieces.
"We're going to score 60 points," Kroll said. "Our challenge will be to hold the other team to under 60 points. … Just because we've been there before doesn't mean we're getting there again. We're a work in progress."
Players to watch
Amber Henson, Sickles: At last count, ESPNU ranked Henson as the fourth-best junior in the nation. After fighting injuries over the summer, that stock could rise by season's end (19.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.5 blocks).
Colette Eule, Tampa Catholic: Net-filling guard fits the Crusaders' run-and-gun offense well. Is the early favorite to be this year's scoring champ (19.5 points, 2.3 steals).
Jade Givens, Jefferson: North Florida recruit is one of the area's most well-rounded players (11.1 points, 4.3 assists, 5.0 steals). Arguably the MVP of a talented Dragons squad.
DeAndra Davis, Spoto: Armwood transfer (13.2 points, 9.2 rebounds) and North Carolina A&T recruit is now a Spartan, following her mother, first-year coach Mareka Davis, as they try to build the young Spartans program.
LeRia Jenrette, Tampa Bay Tech: Big point guard can do it all — pass, rebound and score (7.9 points, 8.4 assists, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 steals). She will need to carry the load for the Titans.
Sarah Brennan, Tampa Catholic: Inside-out threat (16.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.2 steals) was Crusaders' top player during the state tournament.
Laurie Beaty, Jefferson: One of several key weapons for the Dragons (11.6 points, 3.5 steals), she has a knack for making the big shot.
Shayla Wilson, Jefferson: Dragons' top inside presence, she nearly averaged a double double (12.7 points, 9.5 rebounds).
Michelle Taylor, Plant: Senior is looking to get the Panthers back to the top of their district (12.5 points, 7.0 rebounds).
Bre Crum, Sickles: Sophomore point guard has a year of starting experience (13.4 points, 3.9 assists, 3.9 steals). She will need to provide floor leadership for a young Gryphons team.
Teams to watch
Jefferson: The evolution of the Dragons into one of the county's top teams was fun to watch last season. Now coach Tom Mosca's group's goal is to get to the final four. The Dragons return all four starters and can go 11 deep. Combine that with a challenging out-of-conference schedule and the fact that they won't have to go through Clearwater in 4A and a trip to states is realistic.
Sickles: All five starters return from a team that advanced to the region semis last year. The Gryphons' move down to 5A should make for easy pickings, especially with reigning county player of the year, Amber Henson, one of the top juniors in the nation. Still, the Gryphons are young, starting three sophomores and a junior.
Plant: The move up to 6A means the Panthers don't have to play Jefferson twice a season, which should help Plant easily wrap up a district title.
Tampa Bay Tech: The Titans won a district title last year. Frontcourt depth is a question, and Armwood should again cause a challenge in their district.
Nov. 14, Holy Names at Tampa Prep: Both teams lose key scorers in Ayala Wasser (Tampa Prep) and Katie Davis (Holy Names). Where will the points come from?
Nov. 23, Tampa Catholic at Clearwater: One of two games against the Tornadoes as the Crusaders aim to test themselves against state-contender big-school competition.
Dec. 3, Jefferson at Plant: Should be one of the Dragons' best early-season tests, but Jefferson has had the Panthers' number of late.
Dec. 15, Jefferson at Sickles: Circle this one on your calendar. Both teams love to run. Should be a high-scoring game between the county's top public school teams.
Dec. 28-30, Dunbar High School Invitational (Fort Myers): Sickles, Jefferson, Freedom, TBT, Blake and Lakewood represent the bay area in this 48-team event, lauded as the best girls holiday tournament in the state.
Jan. 6, Armwood at Tampa Bay Tech: The second of two regular-season meeting between growing district rivals.