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Land O'Lakes looks to avoid upset

With defending champion Ridgewood out of the picture, Land O'Lakes and Palm Harbor University are the top contenders for the Beef O'Brady's Summer Basketball League championship.

Ridgewood, which went 9-1 in the regular season, skipped the playoffs to participate in a basketball camp in Jacksonville, N.C.

For Land O'Lakes (9-2) to reach the final, it must avoid a repeat of last year's semifinal loss to host Gulf (5-6), an upset winner over Tampa Catholic (6-5) in Thursday's opening round. The rematch is tonight at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Gulf prepared for Land O'Lakes by scrimmaging Wesley Chapel, which plays an up-tempo style.

"There are a lot of similarities between Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel," Gulf coach Steve Feldman said.

In the other semifinal, PHU (9-2) plays Hudson (5-6) at 8. The winners will meet for the title at 9:15.

Also, the losers from the first round will play before tonight's semifinals.

Those matchups are: Central (3-8) vs. River Ridge (0-11) at 5; and Mitchell (4-7) vs. Tampa Catholic at 6.

With Drew Weatherford and J.W. Bryant being the only Land O'Lakes players who were part of last year's team that lost to Gulf, coach Dave Puhalski doesn't figure there will be much of a revenge factor.

"It's a whole different team," Puhalski said. "It's a whole new group of kids."

Point guard Logan Payne and center A.J. Brown, a two-year junior varsity player expected to move up next season, are among Puhalski's newcomers.

"(Payne is a) strong force in back and he's playing defense all over," Puhalski said, adding that Brown "has really impressed me this summer."

Though River Ridge has yet to win a game, coach Bill Linderman said he has found a court leader in forward Drew Thomas, who averaged 15 points in half a season and had a team-high 17 points in Thursday's loss to PHU.

"It's been a real challenge for him because last year he was kind of the young kid on the team," Linderman said of Thomas, who missed several games while working this summer as a lifeguard. "The last few weeks he's really been starting to play well. It's taken a while for him to get used to a leadership role."

During the season, Ridgewood coach Gary Anders informed Feldman, who organizes the summer league, that he had already planned the North Carolina trip.

"I hope I didn't cause him any inconvenience," said Anders, whose team returned Sunday.

"I kind of felt bad for his kids," Feldman said. "They wound up having the best record, but they didn't have a chance to defend the title."

Anders said his players benefitted from traveling together and playing against teams he felt included numerous Division I prospects.

"The level of play and level of competition was impressive," Anders said.

Ridgewood point guard Chris Halkitis made a good impression on his coach during the camp and tournament (Ridgewood finished seventh among 10 teams).

"He scored against everybody," Anders said.