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County clash of the Packers and Spartans

It was an inconsequential preseason game. Each team was missing key players, reserves played a bigger role, and no one cared about the score.

But it did teach Largo coach Phil Price one thing - though Lakewood wasn't on his regular-season schedule, he probably would be seeing the Spartans again.

Well, the Price was right.

The debate over who's the best team in Pinellas County ends tonight.

"We knew the road to the Class 5A championship went through Lakewood," Price said. "We knew we'd have to see them eventually."

Price is only half-right: the road goes through Largo, which hosts Lakewood tonight.

The game is expected to be a sellout, and one of the most important the Packers have had since, well, the last time these teams met in the playoffs.

In 2000, Largo beat Lakewood three times, including for the district title, before 150 fans were turned away at the gate and missed the Spartans pulling out a 53-51 victory in the region final.

Lakewood has gone on to win two state titles since. Largo hasn't been back to the region championship, but can do so with a win tonight.

"I'd have to say this is the biggest game we've had here in two to three years," said Price, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the state. "It should be fun. I told the kids to enjoy this. This is what you play high school sports for."

The Packers (25-2) have won 19 straight since a loss in the Kingdom of the Sun tournament. They were impressive in winning their first playoff game, a 66-34 drubbing of Jefferson.

Lakewood (24-5), No. 4 in Class 5A, has won 11 straight since a loss to Gibbs. The Spartans held Bradenton Southeast to 11 first-half points in their own playoff drubbing, a 55-25 victory.

Those scores may point to a defensive struggle, but both teams like to run and Packers point guard Ben O'Donnell is predicting a "run-and-gun" performance.

"I think both teams are going to run all the time," he said. "I highly doubt you'll see either of us running a lot of halfcourt offenses. It's going to be a battle."

Both teams are junior-laden, though returning Spartans like Ed Nixon, Anthony Dorsey and Dion Burton all have state championship game experience.

"Our guys haven't been in a game like this in a while," Price said. "But they have been together now for two years. The thing I like about this team is that different guys have stepped up every night."

O'Donnell thinks the team that suffers the longest lapse will discover it to be a fatal one.

"If we don't come out and play like we can, we're not going to win," he said. "We have to do it the whole game. No letdowns. If we do, we know they'll jump on us. And we'll be ready to jump on them."