Jeremy Calzone hoped to avoid this speech this soon. With his Wiregrass Ranch team huddled around late Friday afternoon, he spoke softly about overcoming setbacks and how winners brush off tough losses. Calzone's voice was barely audible over the fast pace of junior varsity practice in the background. This wasn't a moment to dig in with a tongue lashing. "We lost for so many years," Calzone said. "They have to learn how to respond when something bad happens."
The first thing one might notice about Wiregrass Ranch is the abundance of players in one of the North Suncoast's newest — and nicest — gymnasiums. There are more than a dozen, and not the stereotypical high school kid deciding he will give basketball a try this winter. These are bona fide basketball players from their towering frames to their chiseled chests.
In just four brief seasons of existence, the Bulls have become one of the teams to beat on the North Suncoast — and they know it.
Wiregrass Ranch brought a strong following to rival Wharton for a preseason game the previous night. The Bulls lost by six to the Wildcats, again coached by Tommy Tonelli after a stint at USF.
Tonelli is well-respected thanks to his coaching success. He knows how to get the most out of his players with a strict, blunt and demanding style.
Calzone said he told Tonelli beforehand he was honored to coach against him.
Someday, someone might say the same about Calzone.
There's a lot riding on this season. In the past, Wiregrass expected to lose games as the young face of North Suncoast basketball. There's still not much of a proud history to speak of (9-17 last season), but the student body is thirsty to back a winner.
Calzone said he has a deep roster, enough quality players to rotate in a fresh five and remain competitive with most teams.
The key will be feeding senior forward Eric Williams, who is 6 feet, 8 inches and weighs 195 pounds. He is considered by many to be the North Suncoast's top returning player. Williams is still learning to cope with the added attention in the paint.
Against Wharton, he was frustrated by the double and triple teams that limited his scoring opportunities.
He will need to adjust.
Wiregrass has the ability to play along the perimeter, but Calzone would prefer the high-percentage shots with a front line that can go with Williams, Land O'Lakes transfer Michael Chase (6-6) and Chris Emory (6-5).
"That's something completely different for us, and we've changed our offense to go with it," Calzone said. "When we started here, one of our tallest guys was 6-1. Now one of our smallest guys is 6-1. We're big, we're very big, and I'm excited about it."
In terms of floor leadership, Bulls junior Tanner Carey is the voice on the floor with plenty of varsity experience.
"We went from two or three guys that knew what was going on to nine or 10 guys," Calzone said. "This is our first full senior class. It's nice to have guys that have been here and know the system."
The biggest adjustment is the change in mentality.
Calzone, who began the Wiregrass program after he was an assistant at Ridgewood, has noticed the shift in mind-set. Kids who once expected to lose games now expect to win every time they hit the floor.
The hunger to win has infused the student body, which Calzone said had more representatives at Thursday's preseason game than Wharton.
He also expects a large turnout for tonight's opener and every home game.
"When I started here it didn't matter who we had," Calzone said. "When you start with freshmen and sophomores we were going to lose. … People don't know how that changes a kid's mind-set. I remember at Ridgewood kids would walk around thinking, 'I'm a basketball player, and I'm going to win.' … Now it's so much different. … Two years ago kids would say we (stink). Now they say they're proud of their team. They're very excited."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 421-3886.