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Wildcats covet title on return to final four

(ran PC edition)

It took 3{ months, 30 games, 27 victories, three losses _ two to ranked foes _ two dramatic overtime playoff wins and one buzzer-beating, NBA-worthy 28-foot 3-point shot to stave off elimination but, finally, the Wildcats are underdogs.


Tonight, the Wesley Chapel High School boys basketball team returns to the state tournament. Just like last year, when the Wildcats made their first trip to the Lakeland Center, Wesley Chapel is again the underdog.

That will be a pleasant change for the Wildcats.

Because they've been marked men _ sorry, boys _ all season long.

"I think we've taken everybody's best shot," coach Kent Mills said.

But then everyone wants to prove themselves against the best. Reaching the state tournament bestows that kind of reputation to a team, and this season Wesley Chapel certainly felt the heat generated by last season's fame.

"Everybody came at us harder," said center David Simpson before Tuesday's practice at the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. "It's like "We're playing Wesley Chapel, we have to play harder.' Everybody wants to beat us because we've been to the final four, because we've been to state."

Wesley Chapel will take on Monsignor Pace High of Miami at 8:30 tonight in the second Class 3A state semifinal. The winner will advance to Friday's 3:30 p.m. state championship game and face the winner of tonight's early semifinal, the 7 o'clock game between Bay High of Panama City and Jones High or Orlando.

Wesley Chapel may be the only school with state tournament experience, but that hasn't translated into respect late in the season. The Wildcats, once ranked No. 1 in the Class 3A state poll, fell to sixth weeks ago. Jones is ranked fourth and Monsignor Pace fifth.

Mills said the buzz around the state is that the Wildcats, favored throughout the regular season, aren't the favorites anymore.

"I think the favorites, if you listen to everybody, will be Jones and Pace," the coach said. "I think we're back to being an underdog, which is good."

The problem for the Wildcats isn't lack of stature, but height. Wesley Chapel is a small team. Simpson, the team's tallest player at 6-foot-4, isn't a center. He's really a small forward. The Wildcats will be, player for player, the smallest team in today's tourney.

But athleticism, team cohesion, frenetic defense, outside shooting and a frontcourt that makes up what it lacks in height with desire have again made the Wildcats one of the state's elite teams.

Only this year, there was no sneaking up on teams.

"This year everybody knew about us because of what we did last year," Simpson said. "I knew it would be more of a challenge, but we have confidence in each other. We lead each other."

The Wildcats did a lot of leading this season. To strengthen his team for another run at the state tournament, Mills put together a tougher non-Pasco County schedule for his team. Yet Wesley Chapel still lost only three games this season.

The first loss of the season came against Class 3A state semifinalist Jones High of Orlando. Four Pasco County teams made the playoffs this year, so even in-county games for Wesley Chapel were tough. That's who the other two losses came against, local schools Ridgewood and Mitchell High.

Then came the playoffs. Twice Wesley Chapel needed overtime to reach the next round, first on the road at Lemon Bay High in Englewood, then Saturday night at home against Jesuit High of Tampa. Senior shooting guard Eric Sorensen had to bury a 28-foot 3-pointer to tie the game and send it to overtime and a 77-75 Wildcats' win.

Greg Harrison, the 5-8 senior, said he knew getting back to state would be tough. But this tough?

"I thought it was harder than I actually thought it was going to be," he said. "In the first part of the season I didn't realize teams would come out and play their best every time against Wesley Chapel.

"I had to start waking up and trying to be a leader on the court, to make everybody realize that they're coming to get us this year, that everybody wants to whup us."

Returning to Lakeland was the team's goal all along. But to simplify things, and to reduce the pressure his players would face, Mills asked them for one simple thing: improvement from last year.

Last year that meant the semifinals.

Tonight, it means getting to the final.

"The pressure is off to get back; we're back," Mills said. "Now we want to improve upon last year. How do you do that? You get to Friday."