Our picks for the top players in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties for the 2018-19 season:
Pinellas Player of the Year
Dionte Blanch, Jr., East Lake
Why we picked him: Before the season, Blanch contemplated transferring to Superior Collegiate. His return helped the Eagles reach new heights. The junior guard was named MVP of the Arrow Force Holiday Classic, reached the 1,000-point career mark and scored a school-record 39 points to beat Wesley Chapel in the Ulrich Classic. He also helped East Lake to its first Pinellas County Athletic Conference title, the first district crown in his career and the school’s first region final appearance. “I would describe it as a perfect season,” he said.
Season highlight: To win meaningful titles, the Eagles knew they would need to get past their biggest nemesis, St. Petersburg. After losing twice to its rival in the regular season, East Lake ended years of frustration by beating the Green Devils in the conference title game. It was the first time Blanch had beaten St. Petersburg in his career. The Eagles did it again in the district final and region semifinals. “The highlight was beating St. Petersburg in the playoffs in front of a sold-out crowd.”
Did you know? Blanch has four brothers. His two oldest, Kenny and Tupac, both played football. But Dionte gave up the sport last year to concentrate on basketball.
What’s next? Blanch has offers from Florida Gulf Coast, Louisiana Tech and Murray State, among others. He plans to play AAU basketball this summer, then will concentrate on narrowing down his college choices.
North Suncoast Player of the Year
Robert Gomez, Sr., Nature Coast
Why we picked him: As a senior, Gomez took his role as team leader seriously. He averaged a team-high 19.8 points. But it was not just about piling up points. Gomez also unselfishly served the ball to teammates, making sure they had their fill of shots. He averaged five assists. His all-around play was a big reason the Sharks, who were a district runnerup, won three straight playoff games on the road to get to Lakeland.
Season highlight: Nature Coast’s postseason run culminated with the program’s first state semifinal appearance since 2012. Nature Coast lost 76-45 to Fort Lauderdale Stranahan. Gomez had one of his team’s highlights when he stepped back to hit a 3-pointer that put the Sharks within a point of the Mighty Dragons in the first quarter. For Gomez, that loss did little to diminish the accomplishment of getting there. “The highlight of the season would be making it to the Final Four and all the great experiences and lessons that season taught me. All the tournaments, bus rides and all the hard work that paid off.”
Did you know? In his spare time, Gomez helps the Sharks coaching staff run camps and leagues to teach kids how to play the game.
What’s next? Some of the biggest goals Gomez has are to play basketball in college so he can have four years of free education, study physical therapy and eventually play overseas. He already is playing travel basketball and plans to attend Division II elite camps to gain more exposure. A few junior colleges and Division III schools have shown interest. Gomez hopes to have something in place this summer so he can play at the next level in the fall.
Hillsborough Player of the Year
Darin Green Jr., Sr., Wharton
Why we picked him: A first-team all-Tampa Bay selection last season, Green remained the go-to player for the Wildcats. After leading his team to a district title and the region semifinals as a junior, Green took the next step by guiding Wharton to another district title and the school’s first trip to the region finals since 2013. The Wildcats, led by Green, nearly pulled off the win vs. Windermere. A shot in the final seconds was just off in a 59-57 loss.
Season highlight: As Wharton’s top scorer, Green racked up a lot of points — and accolades. He reached the 1,000-point career milestone early in the season and set the school record with 1,410 points. Students in Wharton’s 2D art class designed a basketball that listed the accomplishment and surprised Green by giving it to him as a gift. County coaches also selected Green as player of the year.
Did you know? Green has a gift for hitting clutch shots. He saved his best for last, knocking down a tying jumper in the waning seconds, then hitting a buzzer-beater to lead his team to a victory in the Hillsborough County Senior All-Star Game.
What’s next? A coveted recruit, Green signed with UCF in the fall. He picked the Knights over more than a dozen schools, including George Washington, Murray State and USF. He continues the trend of UCF landing prospects from the area. This summer, Green will continue working out to get ready for his freshman season in college.
Coach of the year
Sam Moorer, Seffner Christian
After making its first state semifinal appearance in 2017, graduation took its toll on Seffner Christian. Because of their inexperience, the Crusaders struggled last season, finishing with a losing record and missing the playoffs. Few predicted Seffner Christian to get back to the playoffs, at least at the start of the season. The Crusaders did more than that. Moorer guided his still developing lineup to a district title, and the school’s second state semifinal trip. Seffner won to reach the final for the first time and stayed within striking distance of Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy before losing by four to the three-time state champs.
G Mike Trigg, So., Seffner Christian: In the Class 3A state final, Trigg had a monster performance, leading all scorers with 33 points to help the Crusaders nearly pull off the upset of Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy. He now has offers in both football and basketball from USF.
G Jalen White, Sr., Lakewood: The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi signee was named the Class 6A player of the year by the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches after leading the Spartans to the state championship game.
G Malcolm Whitlow, Sr., Carrollwood Day: The Eckerd commit ended up fourth in the state in scoring with an average of 27.6 points per game. Whitlow also finished his two-year varsity career in Hillsborough (he previously played in Nebraska) with an impressive 1,149 points.
F Sager Cavalier, Sr., Alonso: Known for his punishing play in the paint, Cavalier also showed a knack for coming through in the clutch. He made a last-second shot to beat Wharton in the regular season and led the Ravens to their second straight Class 9A, District 6 title.
G Christian DeLeon, Sr., Hillsborough: The gritty point guard led an efficient offensive attack that helped the Terriers reach new heights by going undefeated against area teams and reaching the state semifinals for the second straight season.
G Terell Strickland, Sr., St. Petersburg
F Jamille Reynolds, Jr., Lakewood
G Chase Farmer, Jr., Land O’Lakes
G Kobe Knox, Jr., Tampa Catholic
G Jakob Hester, Jr., Anclote
G Tre Gilliam, Jr., Gibbs
G Gavin Antoine, Sr., Tampa Bay Tech
G Logan Morrissey, Sr., Plant
G Mekhi Perry, Jr., Land O’Lakes
G Parker Conitz, Jr., Seminole
Anclote: Jalen Cooper, Jacobie Forrest; Berkeley Prep: Chase Barrs; Blake: Emanuel Sharp; Boca Ciega: Dakota Moore; Calvary Christian: Josh Berenbaum; Canterbury: Rivers Lenholt; Central: Rashaad Boyce; Clearwater: Max Jones, Nirobi Peeler; East Lake: Dean Gabrelcik, Jordan Hillmon; Fivay: Eric Howard; Freedom: Kevin Rodriguez; Gibbs: Deonnte Brooks; Gulf: Jacob Zio; Jesuit: Jack Cooper; King: Chris Romkey; Lakewood: Oteman Delancy; Nature Coast: Orien Adams, Brandon Clarke; St. Petersburg: Deondre Earley; Seffner Christian: Cornelius Bobo; Springstead: Sincere Torain; Sunlake: Jordan Golden, Jamaal Wright; Tampa Catholic: Johni Broome; Tampa Prep: Jaren Phillips; Wesley Chapel: Isaiah Ramsey; Wiregrass Ranch: Elijah Howell.