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These Tampa Bay girls basketball teams defy odds to clinch playoff berths

Thanks to unexpectedly low seedings or schedules (perhaps both), these teams were on the postseason bubble.
Ices Utegg's final high school season doesn't end prematurely thanks to River Ridge rolling over higher seeds in the district tournament. [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
Ices Utegg's final high school season doesn't end prematurely thanks to River Ridge rolling over higher seeds in the district tournament. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]
Published Feb. 11

When the Class 6A, District 9 tournament seedings came out, East Lake coach Ryan Quigley did a double take. The Eagles, who were 17-7 at the time, were the No. 4 seed. Wiregrass Ranch, Sunlake and Mitchell were all seeded ahead of them despite having fewer wins.

In the first year of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s new playoff format of emphasizing strength of schedule and rankings, East Lake didn’t get much credit for its regular-season slate. If the Eagles, ranked 201st overall in the state by MaxPreps, were going to advance to the postseason, they had to do it the old-fashioned way and clinch a district title. Each region consists of eight teams, with district champs the only ones guaranteed a berth; runnerups no longer automatically move on.

“We wouldn’t have made it (with a district tournament loss)," Quigley said. “Palmetto beat us out by 10 spots. They would’ve been the eighth seed. And (top district seed) Wiregrass would’ve made it even though we beat them in the semifinals. If it would’ve went that way, I would’ve been complaining a lot."

Related: Defensive district final goes East Lake girls’ way

Instead, East Lake will host No. 5 Charlotte on Thursday night.

The Eagles weren’t the only area team who avoided some sleepless nights wondering if it would make the postseason. River Ridge was 13-12 prior to the Class 5A, District 6 tournament and also a No. 4 seed. The Knights ended up cruising to three straight tournament wins. A loss would have meant the end of the season.

East Lake coach Ryan Quigley knew districts would be do-or-die for his girls thanks to their lower seeding. [Times]

“As soon as we saw that we were the fourth (district) seed we knew the only way to advance was to win out," River Ridge coach Joeyn Dearsman said.

The Knights’ seeding may have been a bit misleading. They played each district opponent once during the season. They won five of the six games with the only loss coming to second-seeded Fivay. They also played in two holiday tournaments, including one in South Carolina.

While River Ridge lost four of five games prior to the district tournament, it was able to pull things together at the right time.

“Did I ever think we were going to finish the season 13-12? Absolutely not," Dearsman said. “I thought we were a way better team than that. But it helped us. If I had to do it all over again and lose 12 games to get my team in a position to play as well as they did in that district championship game, then I would do it all over again."

Related: River Ridge girls basketball masters the lineup shuffle

Despite having second seeds in their respective districts, Strawberry Crest (15-10, Class 6A) and Cambridge Christian (7-12, Class 2A) were still on the playoff bubble thanks to their records. But the Chargers’ 10-point win over Armwood in the district final and the Lancers’ 43-17 romp over Universal Academy earned them region spots.

Then there is Lakewood. The Spartans were 11-13 entering districts. The teams in Class 4A-10 did not play each other in the regular season.

Spartans coach Necole Tunsil used the freed-up schedule to play competitive games against the likes of Seffner Christian, Braden River, Orlando Jones, Orlando Boone, Carrollwood Day, Plant and Miami Norland, all playoff teams. And she also had defending state champion Tampa Bay Tech on the schedule but was forced to forfeit due to a rash of injuries.

None of that mattered when it came to district seeding. Lakewood was No. 2 behind Sarasota Booker despite having an overall higher ranking by MaxPreps. The Spartans might have squeaked into the tournament even with a loss to Booker, but it was assured when they won 50-43 in the district final.

“I don’t understand the whole strength of schedule thing," Tunsil said. “Maybe we did play too tough of a schedule because we were the No. 2 seed. That’s something I’ll have to look at. I definitely have to talk to some of the people who understand it better than I do."

Many of the area’s top seeds advanced as expected, but these five teams managed to shake things up a bit as underdogs. While coaches say they will reevaluate the way they schedule in the future, there is always one sure-fire way to extend the season.

“End of the day, win your district and you don’t have to worry about it," Quigley said.

Region quarterfinals

All games 7 p.m. Thursday unless noted

Class 7A

No. 8 Ridge Community at No. 1 Plant

No. 7 Newsome at No. 2 Windermere

Class 6A

No. 8 Bloomingdale at No. 1 Winter Haven

No. 8 Wiregrass Ranch at No. 1 Braden River

No. 7 Armwood at No. 2 Tampa Bay Tech

No. 5 Charlotte at No. 4 East Lake

No. 5 Bartow at No. 4 Strawberry Crest

Class 5A

No. 8 Naples at No. 1 Jefferson

No. 6 Chamberlain at No. 3 Naples Barron Collier

No. 5 Northeast at No. 4 Cape Coral

No. 5 Palm Bay Heritage at No. 4 River Ridge

Class 4A

No. 8 Holy Names at No. 1 Cocoa

No. 8 Tarpon Springs at No. 1 Lake Highland Prep

No. 7 South Sumter at No. 2 Wesley Chapel

No. 5 Port Orange Atlantic at No. 4 Lakewood

Class 3A

No. 8 Tampa Prep at No. 1 Carrollwood Day

No. 7 Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic at No. 2 Seffner Christian

No. 5 Brooks DeBartolo at No. 4 Melbourne Central Catholic

No. 5 Sarasota Cardinal Mooney at No. 4 Calvary Christian

Class 2A

No. 8 Fort Myers Evangelical Christian at No. 1 Keswick Christian

No. 7 Bayshore Christian at No. 2 Hernando Christian

No. 5 Ave Maria Donahue Catholic at No. 4 Cambridge Christian, 6

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