DOVER — Strawberry Crest, which opened just four years ago, is no longer the little school that might take people by surprise in the sporting arena. Mere population numbers suggest the Chargers' time as any sort of underdog is over.
With the release of the proposed districts for basketball and volleyball, Strawberry Crest really can be considered on an equal playing field with its Plant City brethren.
A few months after the Chargers, Raiders and Cougars were placed together in the same football district — the first time it had happened for any sport — the same treatment for two more major sports only adds to the rivalries.
"I felt we should have been in the position a long time ago, with the proximity of the schools," said La'Tosha Lewis, head coach of the Strawberry Crest girls basketball team.
The proposed new District 7A-7 is not official yet, but, assuming potential appeals from other schools don't change the group, it will consist of the three Plant City-area schools, Brandon, East Bay and Tampa Bay Tech.
Schools have until April 5 to appeal placement, with complaints generally coming from teams that have geography gripes. That won't happen with any of the 7A-7 candidates.
Essentially Durant drops out of the largest classification (8A) and replaces Riverview, which had been in a district along with Plant City, Brandon, East Bay and Tampa Bay Tech. Hillsborough also leaves the district for 6A status, basically swapping places with Strawberry Crest.
From a competitive standpoint, Lewis' Chargers instantly become the girls basketball district favorite.
No matter the sport, the drop from 8A is great news for Durant, but particularly in volleyball where 8A-7 was a monster. The best two public school teams in the county were Wharton and Plant, and Bloomingdale and Newsome also fielded good teams.
Durant was the fourth seed but hosted the district tourney and in the semifinals led top-seeded Wharton 2-0 before losing.
"I am very excited about the season, but I feel this district is going to be just as challenging as the 8A beast we were in," Cougars head coach Brittany Wilson said.
That's because the Chargers fielded a playoff team and Plant City is as competitive as its ever been. In fact volleyball may be the overall girls sport where the three locals match up closest in talent.
No question travel is eased. District teams play twice each year meaning a guaranteed road trip. And regardless of where the district tournaments are held, no school will be too far away with East Bay being a minor exception.
"I love it. No more bus trips to Alonso, Wharton or Plant," said Durant boys basketball coach Trent Tice.
Lewis adds "getting home past 11 p.m. or even midnight . . . will no longer be."
Fans too can enjoy more games, and a full-blown flourishing of the rivalry.
"I think this fosters school spirit and makes it easier for friends and family to attend these important matches," said Chargers volleyball coach Morgan Miltner.
As a competitive group it appears that 7A-7 will be top-to-bottom the most difficult in boys basketball. Strawberry Crest, East Bay and Brandon were playoff teams last year while Durant came on strong.
"I'm excited for the fans and players," said Plant City coach Wardell Chambers. "We will play both Durant and Strawberry Crest twice with the opportunity to play them an additional time in the playoffs. Both schools are led by excellent coaches (Tice and Andre Lewis) and have tremendous fan support, so it's important that we match their energy."
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Looking elsewhere in the county there weren't too many schools greatly affected, though Riverview sees its competition level (and playoff hopes) become more difficult.
Tampa Prep, a power in volleyball and boys basketball, stays in 3A while its key rivals Berkeley Prep and Tampa Catholic are still 4A. While the latter two were in a three-team district the last two seasons with Booker, they will welcome a fourth team in Sarasota Military Academy.
The teams that were in 6A-11 with Strawbery Crest will stay there except for Sickles, which also made the jump to 7A. Joining Armwood, Jefferson, King and Leto now in that 6A district are Chamberlain, Hillsborough, Blake and Lennard. The latter two were in 5A.
The district they vacated will now be a small group of Jesuit, Robinson, Middleton and Spoto.
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]