Three years of playing spring and summer basketball has paid off for the West Pasco Predators and four east side middle school players.
The 15-and-under Predators and the 14-and-under Florida Elite, a combined Pasco-Hillsborough team, will compete in the 2001 Boys Youth Basketball of America National/International Championships. The weeklong tournament begins Saturday at various sites in Polk County.
"They've been playing together three years now. They're a solid group of kids," said Saint Leo assistant coach Conrad Foss, who will help coach the Florida Elite team.
That group includes former Weightman players Chase Bussey, Nigel Bryant and Micah Scanga, along with Deron Burns, who played at Pasco Middle last season.
West Pasco coach Joe Hopper said his team has gradually improved during its time together.
"Going into the third year and getting to where we want to be is pretty special," Hopper said. "It's a great feeling to see a group of boys from the same area (the roster includes high school players from Ridgewood, Mitchell and Land O'Lakes) learn to play team ball."
Florida Elite is competing in its third YBOA National/International series. The team finished in the top 20 in its two previous appearances.
This will be the Predators' first national tournament.
The tournament consists of nine divisions based on age groups from 9-and-under to 17-and-under. Teams include those from the United States, Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Germany, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela.
Opening ceremonies are from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m Saturday at Lakeland George Jenkins. Matchups and sites will be announced at that time.
"I would be very disappointed if we're not in the top 20," Foss said.
The Predators (31-11) have defeated three of the state's top-ranked teams and lost in overtime to powerhouse Orlando Soysa this season.
"We can play with anybody," Hopper said. "That makes me feel like we have a good chance when we go to nationals."
Florida Elite prefers a fast-break offense with quick transitions and is led by Bussey, a point guard, and 6-foot-5 center Zeron Cohn, who will be a freshman at Tampa Jesuit.
According to Foss, Bussey "really makes things go for us."
Meanwhile, the Predators prefer a more deliberate approach.
"We've just got to slow the game down; get (opponents) in the half-court and we'll punish you."
Drew Weatherford and Jeremy Hopper, the coach's son, are West Pasco's top scorers with averages of 15.3 and 15.1 points, respectively.
There's plenty of depth, coach Hopper added, listing Andrew Reed (12.2 points per game), Derek Mitchell (8.1), Brendan Geronimo (5.0), Chris Gunter (5.0) and Jon Kagan (3.0).