This week, Oldsmar Christian heads to Orlando for the Montverde Academy Invitational. The boys high school basketball tournament is, unmistakably, a big-time sporting event.
The venue is sold out. More than 25 college scouts will attend. Games will be streamed off Montverde's Web site. And there are several nationally ranked teams, including Las Vegas Findlay Prep (No. 2 in USA Today's top 25).
At one time the prospect of playing in this type of atmosphere would have rattled Oldsmar Christian, a school that has made the playoffs just four times and has never advanced to the state final four.
No longer. The Eagles are used to such attention after deciding last season to forgo playing a district schedule in the Florida High School Athletic Association and opting to be independent.
That means Oldsmar is ineligible to compete for a state title. That did not matter to the Eagles, who clamored to get into tournaments and showcase games after playing a schedule against mostly small, private area schools.
"We got some heat from other coaches for doing this," Oldsmar coach Ryan Pannone said. "I don't know why the pursuit of a state title has to be the end all, be all. I guess I just think differently. My main objective is to get kids into college, and this route gives them the most exposure to do that."
Oldsmar is not alone. Once a sport that relied strictly on teams competing for championship glory, boys basketball is creeping toward the big time with a handful of independent teams barnstorming the state to play in packed arenas for national exposure.
"I think it's the wave of the future," said Pannone, 23.
Local doesn't cut it
For a long time, basketball teams played mostly local competition before gearing up for a run at a state title. Then six years ago there were sweeping changes.
In 2004, Kevin Sutton was hired at Montverde Academy, a boarding school 30 miles northwest of Orlando.
While other athletic programs at the school competed in a district, Sutton decided to stick to an independent schedule to build a basketball power.
"We basically went to the FHSAA and laid our proverbial cards on the table," Sutton said. "We told them the route we wanted to take and they did not have a problem with that."
Playing a national schedule with international players, Montverde has stockpiled as much talent as possible, putting its trust in players other programs could only dream about.
Montverde has been nationally ranked four straight seasons and has sent 26 players to college, including Luc Mbah a Moute, a former star at UCLA who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. This season, Montverde has three seniors who have signed: Rob Chubb (Auburn), Ruslan Pateev (Arizona State) and Nick Diatta (Towson). A junior, James Bell, has already committed to Villanova.
"That is the model program," Pannone said of Montverde. "Everyone sees the kind of success they've had and they want to emulate it."
Since then, Pendelton School, part of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, has gone independent. So has Choice Academy in Miami. Oldsmar Christian is one of the latest.
"We know of a few schools that have chosen to go independent and play a national schedule," said Sonny Hester, FHSAA director of compliance. "I don't know how much of a trend it is. Basically, these schools did it because they want to play by their own set of rules.
"We don't begrudge them that. We're a user-friendly organization. They just can't play for anything that matters within the state association."
Tearing loose from the systematic parity that is high school district basketball was not an easy choice for Oldsmar Christian. Pannone still struggles with what is best: local and state success, or an emphasis on national recognition and college exposure for players?
"I know that by playing in a district and for a state title rivalries are formed, and kids around school rally around the team more," Pannone said. "Our games have not been as well attended as they have been when we were in a district.
"We made some sacrifices to do this, but I want to see my players go to college."
Pannone has had six players go to the next level, schools like North Florida, Idaho State and Tennessee Tech.
Now Oldsmar and other independent teams are considering raising their profile even more — by becoming approved nonmembers of the FHSAA. To do that, every athletic program at the school would be ineligible to compete in a district and for a state title. But a basketball program with national aspirations would be allowed an unlimited number of games against anyone in the country.
"I think this is the next step for schools in the state," Pannone said.