For four straight seasons, Tampa Catholic’s Don Dziagwa has guided tearful players to the interview room at Lakeland’s RP Funding Center Arena. Each time, the Crusaders were enveloped in silent misery, wondering how they kept coming up short on boys basketball’s biggest stage.
Once again, everything is in place for a run at an elusive state title: a talented roster, depth and, perhaps most important, a challenging schedule. After all, Tampa Catholic is intent on having its playoff experience last longer than a few games.
Try the entire season.
The Crusaders have been sure to mark their calendars. Title-contending teams, at the state and national level, are on tap pretty much every game of the regular season. There are matchups against Orlando’s Montverde, Bradenton’s IMG Academy and Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, all ranked among the top five nationally by MaxPreps.
Of the known teams on Tampa Catholic’s schedule (some opponents are still to be determined in tournaments), all but one either made the playoffs or are nationally ranked.
“I don’t know of too many national teams with this kind of schedule, let alone many in Florida that are competing for a state title,” Dziagwa said.
Dziagwa stacked his schedule by design. The Florida High School Athletic Association revamped the playoff format in the offseason. Boys and girls basketball teams still compete for district titles, but the other four playoff spots in each region for classes 7A-2A will be determined by the MaxPreps rankings.
Wins and losses matter but so does the quality of the opponent.
Not every team has the scheduling flexibility of Tampa Catholic, a private school that is not bound by county or conference requirements.
Public school teams in Pasco and Pinellas still have to play teams in their respective counties to fulfill conference obligations. Hillsborough gave its boys and girls teams the option of scheduling 15, 17 or 19 of the maximum 25 regular-season games against county foes.
Defending girls state champion Tampa Bay Tech, ranked sixth nationally by MaxPreps and 10th by USA Today, chose to play fewer county teams to be in more tournaments and face big-time competition. Among the teams on the Titans’ schedule is New Hope Academy of Landover Hills, Md., No. 1 in the country.
“I like (the format) now because it allows us to play more competitive teams,” TBT coach Reggie Lawrence said. “It just makes you more competitive. There are other counties where they make your entire schedule. That would hurt us in the rankings if we did that. We were state champions last year but based on strength of schedule, St. Thomas Aquinas was No. 1 and we were No. 2 even though we beat them in the state championship.”
Longtime Lakewood girls coach Necole Tunsil has been outspoken for years about how her schedule hurts her in the postseason. Playing Pinellas teams, she argued, did not make her Spartans ready for the teams they would play in the postseason.
Now the Spartans have added Carrollwood Day, Seffner Christian, Tampa Bay Tech, Miami Norland and Spruce Creek to beef up their schedule.
“For us it’s been a long time coming,” Tunsil said. “I’ve said this for a long time, Pinellas County basketball does not prepare you for what’s in store. It’s a reality check for us. If we’re on the back end of a 66-6 game, then our girls will realize that we are behind and need to get better. If somebody comes in and beats the brakes off us, then hey, we’ve just got to get better. I want someone to expose us before the championship.”
River Ridge girls coach Joeyn Dearsman also likes the fact that she is not locked into Pasco County opponents.
“I kind of like having more freedom,” she said. “You can gear your schedule toward what is better for your schools. There were years where we would play our district teams twice, which was 16 games. I’ve had some pretty good teams lately and it didn’t leave much room to schedule teams outside of Pasco County.”
Another proponent of the new rankings system is Northeast girls coach Will White. He believes it will eliminate most of the lopsided games because teams will be able to schedule other teams with the same talent. And he likes the fact that it makes the regular season more relevant.
“In the past, if you made the district final you moved on and you knew your opponent,” White said. “Now, only the district winner knows they are moving on. But if you have a good ranking, then you don’t necessarily need the district final. The regular season matters more now. The regular season, to me, used to be all practice. I had 25 practice games.”
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t a downside. Carrollwood Day has been an elite team for the past three seasons. The Patriot girls have gone to the state tournament all three years but haven’t been able to get past Miami Country Day.
Coach Karim Nohra said it’s hard for him to schedule local teams because some won’t play him. So he has to search the state to find enough games. They are playing in four shootouts this season, at $200 a pop.
“I’m traveling all over Kingdom Come for these shootouts,” Nohra said. “Some of the best teams that are local don’t even want to play you. I’m travelling more than I ever have. If you want the high-profile teams, you have to go to the shootouts. The FHSAA has created a whole new market, and it’s these shoutouts.”
Not everyone is sure how the new system will work out.
“I think we’re all trying to figure this out,” Dziagwa said. “Will playing a tough schedule factor into the rankings at the end? Will losing to nationally ranked teams cost us? None of us really know.”
Dziagwa said he would have scheduled these games regardless of the retooled format. He made things grueling so his players would be ready for anything.
“I’ve been around long enough to remember when just district champions made the playoffs,” Dziagwa said. “So by the end of the season if we crunch the numbers and fall short of an at-large bid, then we know we’ll have to go out and win the district.
“I know one thing: we’ll be battle-tested.”
He can thank his schedule for that.