Ask those who know about girls high school basketball in Pinellas County, and they will not hesitate when asked who has the best team this season.
The Spartans have so much talent their bench players could beat most area teams. There is size (6-foot-2 center Shineice Beamon, 6-foot-1 forward Kasey Drayton). There is speed (guards Tianah Alvarado and Maya Madre). There is scoring (shooting guard Jacquette Green). There is rebounding (power forward Clemmeisha Flowers). There is a ball handling transfer from Boca Ciega, Alexis Ungro.
The defending Class 4A state champions are loaded. Everyone knows it. Everyone except coach Necole Tunsil.
"We're not that team,'' Tunsil said. "On paper, it looks good. But as we know, paper crumbles and it burns. It's just paper.''
It is a coach's job to worry about her team, and Tunsil is doing a good job. What bothers her most as the season gets set to tip off is the lack of leadership. Kayla Roberts, the undisputed leader of last year's championship team, graduated.
Tunsil said this year she has a gym full of talented players who let their play speak for them. There is no vocal leader like Roberts, or like Tunsil was when she helped the Spartans win a state title in 1989.
"You want rebounding? We rebound with the best of them,'' Tunsil said. "You want scoring? We can score with the best of them. Layups? Jump shots? Pull up, mid-range jumpers? A point guard who can go left and right no problem? We have it all. But I don't have that floor general. That's unchartered territory for me.
"We don't have a leader, and if we don't find one, we'll just be the best team in the county on paper. That doesn't mean a daggone thing.''
Boca Ciega was the last Pinellas County team to win consecutive state titles, in 1995-96. Anything short of another appearance in the state tournament would be a disappointment for Lakewood.
The Spartans have been bumped up to Class 5A this year and are in a district with Boca Ciega, Gibbs, Dunedin, Bradenton Southeast and Bradenton Bayshore. There will be some new teams for the Spartans to get past, and they know it won't be easy.
"We have to push harder this year,'' Alvarado said. "We have the targets on our backs. We have all the pieces to go back, but everyone has to play their part."
"We won states so everyone is trying to beat us,'' she said. "There's more pressure. You don't want to win it one year and then not get there the next year. That's a big motivator for us.''
Tunsil will spend the next month or so trying to figure her team out. There have been good days at practice, and there have been not so good days. Every day, Tunsil keeps an eagle eye on her team, trying to figure out who will emerge as the leader.
If Tunsil could suit up and play right now, she would. But her eligibility ran out 22 years ago. For now, she'll just wait and see.
"I've told them this many times,'' Tunsil said. "If Necole Tunsil played some minutes, you wouldn't see me asking if we're going to win another championship. We would. But if they do it or not, that's totally up to them. I can't get on the floor anymore.''
Teams to watch While Lakewood is the team to beat, there are other talented schools in the county. Here's our unscientific "other'' seven teams to keep an eye on.
1. St. Petersburg: The Green Devils lose Kamika Idom but gain an outstanding freshman in Deja Swinton, a Northside Christian transfer. May be the closest team to Lakewood.
2. Indian Rocks Christian: The Eagles will start five seniors and appear loaded. Rachel Boyette transferred from Northside Christian, Amber Frounfelter transferred from Seminole and Caroline Shelton moved from Tennessee and is the starting guard. Jessica Logemann, Tori Trader and Kristen Scholl are key returners.
3. Clearwater: The Tornadoes reload. They lost the scoring of Emma Loucks, but Tyra Bolden, Alexandria Alford and Javon McTier should fill the void.
4. Boca Ciega: Tamara Taylor, the Times' Pinellas County player of the year last season, has graduated, but the Pirates still have talent. Destiny Brown and Olivia Hester are key returners.
5. St. Petersburg Catholic: Seven seniors return, including Annie Artise, Brittney Dunbar and Michelle Halapio. SPC is now in a tough district with Indian Rocks, but it's a playoff caliber team.
6. Palm Harbor University: Kristine Fuller, a senior guard, is a top notch player and will make the Hurricanes tough to beat.
7. East Lake: The guard duo of Amber Jennings and Marlyce Meredith will make the Eagles a pain to play.