LAST YEAR'S RECORD: Unavailable.
HEAD COACH: Tom Jessee (first year).
STARTERS LOST: None.
KEY RETURNERS: Phyllis Kessell (6-0, Jr., F), Heather Pownall (5-9, Jr., F), Kari Young (5-7, Jr., PG).
OUTLOOK: Jessee plans on implementing a full-court press and half-court trapping defense, which he hopes will lead to an up-tempo offense. Whether he has the players to do so, however, is the question. Even Jessee doesn't know the answer since he is beginning his first season. One player he knows is a proven commodity is Kessell, the team's leading scorer last year and a first-team All-Sunshine Athletic Conference selection. She will have to be again. "She's one of the top three players in the district," Jessee said. "For us to be competitive she needs to average a double-double." Kessell should get some scoring help from Pownall, a SAC honorable-mention choice, and a couple of promising junior varsity players. Jessee is still looking for a point guard, although Young can play the position.
JESSEE SAYS: "They haven't had a real great basketball tradition around here. I hope we can turn it around a little bit. Hopefully by midseason we'll become a little more fluid and by district time we'll be ready."
LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 16-16.
HEAD COACH: Doreen Grote (7th year).
STARTERS LOST: None.
KEY RETURNERS: Mindy Blom (5-3, Jr., PG), Randi Krouskos (5-7, Jr., F), Icy Miller (5-10, Jr. F).
OUTLOOK: Drearier with the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Kerri Rulison, who injured her ACL three weeks ago and will likely miss the season. But Grote isn't ready to concede anything. She thinks she has some good scorers who can now shine in Rulison's absence, like Blom, Krouskos and Miller. She is also high on Cristina Warder and her freshman sister Nicole. Grote has no individual who can replace Rulison's 23 ppg, but she thinks her group can. "Because we wanted Kerri to shoot when she had the ball in her hands, a lot of other kids didn't get the opportunity to score last year," Grote said. "Now they will. I'm not really worried about that." What she is worried about is rebounding. Her team isn't afraid to shoot, but someone has to chase down the missed shots.
GROTE SAYS: "Defensively we'll be okay. They are quick and aggressive. Offensively we need to shoot. We just need to get to all those missed shots."
Land O'Lakes Gators
LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 13-11.
HEAD COACH: Jerry Stacy (7th year).
STARTERS LOST: Janet Hankins.
KEY RETURNERS: Francesca Hankins (5-7, Jr., PG), Nicki Clevenger (5-9, Sr., F/G), Meghan McLaughlin (6-1, Jr., C), Jessica McCoy (5-9, Sr., F).
OUTLOOK: The Gators have the best backcourt on the North Suncoast with Clevenger and Hankins. Clevenger, an All-Suncoast honorable-mention recipient last year, is a big physical player who can post up and handle the ball. Hankins is a slasher who will hustle the ball upcourt. Both guards averaged in double figures last year and were first-team SAC members. McLaughlin is a force inside who Stacy thinks "can be a dominating player," and McCoy is a defensive whiz who always guards the opposition's best. Stacy has the luxury of bringing former starting point guard Kate Benson (she didn't play last year) off the bench and going with a three-guard set, or bring size off the bench in 6-0 scorer Latasha Pearson.
STACY SAYS: "I think we have a lot of potential. We had a disappointing finish in the district last year, so one thing about this group is they are really hungry."
LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 22-5.
HEAD COACH: John Edwards (3rd year).
STARTERS LOST: Sonya Daszkiewicz.
KEY RETURNERS: Jackie Pugh (6-1, Sr., F), Catrina Ceaser (6-2, Sr., C), Shannon Fennell (5-11, Sr., F).
OUTLOOK: Edwards helped develop the team that J.C. Arauz took within a game of the final four last season, so his return from a one-year sabbatical should go smoothly. And he has Pugh, who some think is the best player in the state. The senior has no equal in the county and is impossible to stop. When the Pirates get in trouble, Pugh bails them out from all three positions on the court. Ceasar averaged more than a dozen rebounds last year and is an inside presence along with Fennell. The Pirates are the county's biggest team by far, but who will shoot the ball from the outside? That is the biggest question facing Edwards with the loss of three-point ace Daszkiewicz. He is hoping a guard will emerge in the preseason, although the Pirates seem short at the position.
EDWARDS SAYS: "We're basically a serious post_playing team but we need some guards. Defensively we're going to be tough. We're going to get after some people with our quickness and our size."
LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 5-16.
HEAD COACH: Gary Zimmerman (2nd year).
STARTERS LOST: Jen Mobly, Regan Marchido, Laurette Balinsky, Anne Marquez.
KEY RETURNERS: Fannie Holmes (5-7, Sr. F), Chrissy Bavetta (5-6, Sr., PG).
OUTLOOK: Zimmerman has set improvement over last year as a goal, and that should be an easy achievement. The Rams look to have a strong interior game, with 6-1 sophomore center Afton Wilcox and 6-0 senior center Christy Luikart manning the middle and an aggressive bunch of wing players in New Jersey transfer Melissa Turfus, senior Diana Ryan and sisters Tiffany and Brittany Fischer, who will start at center despite only standing 5-8. Bavetta is a four-year player, but the Rams desperately need someone (Bethany Beets? Julie Grassin?) to step up and hit some outside shots to keep defenses honest.
EDWARDS SAYS: "Our perimeter is thin. We don't have much depth there and last year we didn't shoot very well. We'll be getting the ball more inside."
River Ridge Royal Knights
LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 15-9.
HEAD COACH: Brian Colding (1st year).
STARTERS LOST: Carla Imperatore, Autumn Lynch, Allison Proctor, Jackie Waller.
KEY RETURNERS: Ashlea Thomas (5-7, Jr., F/G), Jessica Deeb (5-5, Sr., PG), Lauren Villanti (5-6, Sr., G), Stephanie Booth (5-10, Jr., F/C), Lisa Cassamassina (5-10, Jr., F), Lisa Molinaro (5-5, Sr., G).
OUTLOOK: River Ridge lost a lot of seniors, but returns plenty of varsity experience. A handful of key juniors like Thomas and Booth have been on the varsity since their freshmen season. Thomas led the team in scoring last year and is the Knights' best scoring threat. Her slashing style and leaping ability could open things up inside for Booth and Cassamassina, who will man the middle. The Knights' inside game will get even stronger with the addition of junior Jaimie Tzouca, who is the tallest player at 5-11. Colding, the junior varsity coach the past two years, doesn't plan on changing much. The Knights may be a little more aggressive on defense and offense, and may press more.
COLDING SAYS: "I've got a good nucleus returning. I've got players with experience at the varsity level. We just don't have the senior class most experienced teams do."
LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 8-20.
HEAD COACH: Ernie Pittman (15th year).
STARTERS LOST: Deena Rogers, Sonia Thompson.
KEY RETURNERS: Kristen Schleicher (5-10, Sr., F), Nicole Gingerich (5-2, Sr., PG), Amy Palmer (5-8, Jr., F).
OUTLOOK: Pittman has a solid group returning with a nice blend of size and experience. All-SAC performer Schleicher was the team's leading scorer last year (11 ppg) and leading rebounder (9.5), and she helps form a talented front line with Palmer, Lindsie McDonald (5-8) and Andrea Wardell (5-10). "Andrea gives us some extra size, which we were sorely lacking last year," Pittman said. Gingerich will be looked at to provide floor leadership and some outside shooting, but the Bulldogs still are thin at the shooting positions. Pittman is confident one or two hot shots will emerge from a big junior class. The Bulldogs' schedule (they play Haines City and Northside Christian twice each) will reap its rewards at the end of the season.
PITTMAN SAYS: "The best thing about this team is we have just about everybody back. I think that's one of the benefits of going through a season like we did last year (8-20)."
_ Compiled by JOHN C. COTEY