It's no secret to the Class 3A, District 7 boys basketball participants that the title is up for grabs. The reaching begins tonight at 7:30, when eighth-seeded Hernando plays host to Land O'Lakes. On Thursday, the tournament switches to Saint Leo College's Marion Bowman Activities Center, where eight teams will vie for a spot in Saturday's championship game, at 7:30. Ridgewood _ the Gulf Coast Conference champion _ is the tournament's top-seeded team.
Although the Rams are seeded first, coach Gary Anders said it will take a great effort for his team to emerge as champion.
"In a tournament, anything can happen," Anders said. "In our bracket, Springstead and Pasco are capable. In the other bracket, Citrus didn't win 21 games by accident, and Gulf, you can't overlook them. There are some teams that we had close games with that think they can beat us.
"I think it'll come down to who can play well for three nights."
The Rams are led by senior forward Tony Bego, who averages 21.5 points per game.
The Pasco-Springstead matchup, which starts at 2 p.m. on Thursday, is the highlight of first-round games.
During the season, the teams split two close affairs. On Feb.
15, the Eagles defeated Pasco 54-51 in Spring Hill. Springstead coach Greg O'Connell said he expects Thursday's game to be close again.
"I think we're both very capable," O'Connell said. "I think with this year's group, I don't think it's going to matter. Because of the team we have and position we're in, they'll all be tough."
The game will feature three-point specialists Mike Gillespie Jr. of Pasco and Ryan O'Connell of Springstead. Pasco's O'Connell averages 21.5 points, Gillespie Jr. 19.3.
Citrus has a balanced attack, led by Luke Simmons, Shaun Jackson and Matt Jackson. The Hurricanes are 4-1 in February and coach Glenn Sykes has put seedings in perspective.
"Some teams have better records than others," Sykes said, "but if you don't come ready to play every night, you'll find yourself on the outside looking in."
Thanks to a suspension, Zephyrhills was reduced from prohibitive favorite to just a contender in one week. Last week, Bulldogs coach Craig Milburn suspended five players from the team, three of whom were starters.
Milburn has seven players on his roster. But, his team, which plays Thursday against Gulf, is also battling a flu epidemic.
"Three players _ Reggie Roberts, Torrey McKay and Eric Maltass _ all are sick with a stomach virus," Milburn said. "If we have all seven players, we'll play as hard as we can. If we win one, I'll consider this a success."
Earlier this season, Gulf battled Zephyrhills, then at full strength, and lost 78-75. The Buccaneers have either upset or played each of the top five seeds close. On Jan.
26, they defeated Citrus 56-51; they lost to Ridgewood 57-53 on Feb.
2; and they lost to Springstead 58-56 on Feb.
"I feel good (about where) we're at," Gulf coach Greg Bollinger said. "In Round 2, we'll get Citrus or Hudson."
The Buccaneers are led by seniors Scott Horner (17.4) and Jerry White (14.5).
New Port Richey Christian started tournament play Monday.
The Warriors (12-9) defeated Admiral Farragut 74-68 in the Class A, District 10 tournament first round at Keswick Christian, in St. Petersburg. NPR Christian resumes play on Thursday against Keswick.