Our girls basketball top 25 for the opening week of the season:
1. Strawberry Crest (20-8 last year): La’Tosha Lewis is not shying away from the expectations.
She doesn’t only expect her Chargers to be good, she expects them to be as good as everyone says they will be.
“We just have to prove to everyone we are what we say we are,’’ she said.
What they are, at the moment, is Tampa Bay’s best girls basketball team heading into the 2013-14 season, which tipped off this week.
The Chargers have the area’s top player in Aliyah Gregory, shooter Maiya Trigg (15.8 points a game last year) and post player Terra Brooks. And they added Trigg’s freshman twin sisters, Briana and Ayanna Matthews, to the starting lineup.
“I felt like last year was our breakout year, but a lot of people still overlooked us,’’ Lewis said. “I think we’ve been overlooked because of our youthfulness. But this is going to be the year we make a statement.”
They made the playoffs last year before being eliminated by Sickles, a team that handed the Chargers four of their eight losses.
Maybe you could have blamed youth last year, but Lewis says it may be time to celebrate it. Gregory, a 5-11 forward who signed with UCF, is the team’s only senior. Brooks is only a sophomore, Trigg just a junior, and 6-3 center Nandi Jorden is another junior waiting in the wings.
They are big, versatile and deep, and built for a nice little run.
2. Freedom (25-4): The Patriots were 22-0 against Tampa Bay competition last year, but repeating that dominance will be trickier without graduated Player of the Year Faith Woodard, now at Georgetown. Taylor Emery (20.8 ppg) is back, but no one else who averaged as many as four points a game last year. Coach Laurie Pacholke, though, thinks junior Bianca Igwe and senior Nari Garner are ready to make the leap this season, keeping Freedom near the top of Hillsborough County.
3. Palm Harbor University (19-9): Is this a state contender? Maybe. The addition of East Lake transfer guard Amber Jennings and promising freshman Julia Ingram — one of three sisters who will start — make PHU the team to beat in Pinellas County. A nice blend of size and shooting should mean success beyond the county border, and there are big expectations for a team that has never won a playoff game.
4. St. Petersburg (18-11): The Green Devils and underrated coach Tamika Coley could make some noise this year. They have nice shooters like Michael Everhart and a strong presence on the wings and inside with Angel Brown, Jordan Berenbaum and 6-1 St. Petersburg Catholic transfer Victoria Uhatafe.
5. Seffner Christian (28-3): Leading scorer Tesha Hanson graduated from the state semifinalist team, but Sabrina Whiting, Peyton Walker and , Ally Parimore return. That trio averaged a combined 38 points and 22 rebounds a game. A beefed-up schedule could lead the Crusaders right back to Lakeland.
6. Lakewood (24-6): The Spartans are off to a terrible start — losses to Northeast and Sarasota (by 32 points) — but they have the talent to turn it around. But if a young group can’t jell around standouts Deja Swinton and Siyana Allen, Lakewood could tumble from the rankings in a hurry.
7. Calvary Christian (25-4): The Warriors, a final-four team last season, don’t have much size, but they can run the court with anyone, with 5-8 twins Savannah and Carley Plentovich spearheading a breakneck offense.
8. Boca Ciega (24-8): Perennial powerhouse Pirates have lost a little of their luster, and will need some help to go with Niaya White to return to its previous perch.
9. Steinbrenner (21-7): The Warriors lost some firepower, but a better Rachel Briere, Taylor Thigpen and Olivia Unger are a good enough trio to keep them in the district mix.
10. Gulf (21-7): Kayla Kivinski will give Gulf a chance every night, and Ridgewood transfer and 3-point shooter Ali Cochrane makes the offense even better. But what may separate the Bucs from the pack this year will be improved play in the post.
11. Tampa Bay Tech (17-7): The Titans may revolve around talented 6-1 center Brianna Thomas, but they also return Shakela Smith, Kirtisha Nelson and Chyna Lindsay. That’s a whole lot of experience for TBT, which will battle with Strawberry Crest for district honors.
12. Riverview (17-8): The Sharks started 12-0 last year and finished 5-8, but Asia Royster and Kierra Haywood makes this team a district contender and an unlikely candidate to suffer a repeat under new coach Gerrard Batista.
13. Tampa Catholic (11-15): Freshman Alise Davis is going to be special and freshman point guard Mia Blocker is a team captain already. Top returning scorer Dominique Eule, a sophomore, makes this a team to reckon with by season’s end.
14. Mitchell (16-10): Only Ashley Lewis averaged double figures last season, but Hannah Kriston was at 9.7 and three others averaged more than 5, and everyone is back.
15. Plant (19-8): Carrie Mahon fields a district contender every year, and this season is no exception. Her top four scorers from last year graduated, but freshman Payton Paro was one of 12 Panthers to score in their season opener.
16. Sickles (25-5): Graduated top two scorers from a region final team, but Gryphons, led by leading returning scorer Kassidy Girdler, can never be counted out.
17. Armwood (16-10): Kiana King (13.1 ppg last year) and Keaundra Ivory (7.5 ppg and 7.9 rpg) help make the Hawks one of the favorites in Class 6A-9.
18. Academy of the Holy Names (15-11): The Jaguars are one of those teams who can surprise anyone any night. When Ashley McWilliams, who averaged 20.8 ppg before a torn ACL last year, returns in December, look for AHN to compete for a district title.
19. Osceola (16-11): Katie Horan is one of the top shooters in the area, and with some young talent around her, the Warriors could surprise some folks.
20. Pasco (25-2): Brianca Roberts (17 ppg) is back, but Allahon Marbra (15 ppg) is out indefinitely with a knee injury, so the Pirates may have trouble ruling the county again.
21. Clearwater (23-5): Paul Lang, the boys coach last season at Winter Springs, takes over for longtime coach Tom Shaneyfelt, and he’ll count on Alex Alford to ease his transition.
22. Academy at the Lakes (23-5): The Class 2A runners-up are starting two eighth-graders, a freshman and two sophomores. Seven of the 10 players are brand new. But all coach Karim Nohra does is win, and don’t be surprised if by the end of the season the Wildcats are making another run.
23. Wiregrass Ranch (16-12): Underrated Amanda Melosky (14.3 ppg last year) leads a young group — five freshmen have already scored points — playing in a tough district (7A-8) with four of the five teams ranked in HomeTeam preseason 25.
24. Hillsborough (15-9): The Terriers may take some lumps early, but if players like junior Khoi Wilson and senior Aejona Chambers can hold down the fort until Trinity Baptiste returns from her torn ACL, Hillsborough will contend for a playoff spot.
25. Jefferson (7-14): The Dragons only graduated a few seniors, so look for a bounce back after last year’s losing season.
Others receiving consideration: Nature Coast Tech, River Ridge, Tampa Prep