If Okaro White is considered the most dominant player in the county and the Clearwater Tornadoes are the defending conference champion and Class 5A state finalist, the other county teams' task is only slightly more challenging than moving a mountain range. White was the Times' all-county player of the year as a junior last season, averaging 20.8 points and 8.6 rebounds in leading Clearwater to the 5A state final, where the Tornadoes lost to Gainesville.
A 6-foot-9 forward, White is considered one of the best players in the nation and has signed with Florida State. His size poses a huge matchup problem in a county that is more guard-oriented. White's return is a big reason Clearwater is ranked 91st in the nation by Rivals.com.
But as the season begins tonight, injuries are casting a shadow over the mountain. White turned his left ankle in practice and is expected to miss the next two weeks, including Tuesday's showdown with Boca Ciega and Saturday's matchup with nationally ranked Arlington County Day. He is expected to return for a Dec. 5 game against St. Petersburg.
"The rehab is going well, and the swelling is going down," White said. "We have a few injuries on the team, but once we get over them, we'll be kicking it."
The Tornadoes are the favorite to repeat as conference champions and have a shot at reaching the state championship game again. But the road will not be easy in a county that is more competitive than it has ever been.
"You can't say there's one real dominant team," Clearwater coach Allen Carden said. "Our district and our conference are no pushover. We have to play well every night."
1. Clearwater: The Tornadoes return Okaro White and point guard Cory Carden. They picked up a few transfers, such as John Hogan (Indian Rocks Christian) and Matt O'Donnell (St. Petersburg Catholic). Throw in returners such as Joey Nungester and Clearwater has a team capable of making another deep run in the playoffs.
2. St. Petersburg: Things have lined up nicely for the Green Devils, who return nearly everyone from last year's team that finished district runnersup. They are led by guard Gabe Moton, who has an offer from Tennessee Martin. And they no longer have to deal with Sickles and John Henson, who graduated.
3. Lakewood: The Spartans will still rely on their quickness and relentless defense. Dominic Lane is back and will be counted on for the tough, inside points. But Lakewood does not have a lot of size and experience at point guard.
4. Largo: The Packers again will be small and quick, and they'll count on their sharpshooting to stay in games. They are led by Breon Bostick, one of several returners who give Largo as much experience as anyone in the county.
5. Boca Ciega: The Pirates have a nice mix of returners to go along with a solid freshman class, led by D.J. White, son of former Pirate standout and current assistant coach David White. The big question is how quickly the newcomers adapt to high school basketball.
6. Gibbs: One of the deepest and most athletic teams in the county, the Gladiators should push Boca Ciega, Lakewood and St. Petersburg for south county supremacy.
7. Seminole: The Warhawks should be the surprise of the county. They return three starters, including guards Flynn Bluett and Nathan Sowada, from a team that took Boca Ciega and Lakewood each to overtime last season.
1. Countryside: The Cougars return Dino Tabakovic and picked up a few transfers to give them depth.
2. Pinellas Park: The Patriots have one of the best guards in the county in Srdjan Jankovic and have more size than most teams.
3. Tarpon Springs: The Spongers showed they can hang with some of the county's top teams during the summer.
4. Palm Harbor University: Though the Hurricanes lose some size, they have quickness with a guard-heavy lineup.
5. Dunedin: The Falcons have struggled but still have one of the county's top shooters in Ben Patrick.
Top private schools
1. Admiral Farragut: The Blue Jackets return a good portion of their lineup and welcome the return of Josh Burch from football this week.
2. Northside Christian: The Mustangs have one of the best players at this level in Kyle Keck, a 6-foot-7 junior and son of sportscaster Al Keck.
3. Canterbury: The Crusaders have the most experience at the Class A level and are led by Dominique Thornton and Bryce Wilson.
4. Keswick Christian: The Crusaders return guard Tanner Wozniak, who turned heads at showcase events this summer.
5. Calvary Christian: The Warriors have a solid nucleus coming back and should shoot well from long range.