County talent pool deep
Gateway defends district crown
By Rick Pedone
Based on outstanding returning talent and impressive performances in off-season leagues, this should be another competitive boys basketball season in Osceola County.
Gateway reached the regional playoffs last season and is a favorite in district 7A-5, where it will contend with Osceola, Liberty, Lake Nona, Harmony, St. Cloud and Celebration.
The Panthers will be challenged mainly by Osceola, which has one of the deepest and most talented teams in recent years.
The two are scheduled to play Friday at Gateway, although the OHS football team might play for the state champonship that night.
Poinciana moves to district 6A-8 where it will find strong completion in Polk County. New Dimensions plays in 3A-8, and City of Life Academy is in 2A-6, also against Polk County foes.
Heritage Christian and Southland Christian will compete in the Florida Christian Conference, where Heritage Christian is a four-time state champion.
This could be the kind of season that Kowboys basketball fans enjoy: a championship one.
Coach Nate Alexander has put together perhaps his most talented team since taking over two seasons ago, and the expectations are high.
“The team returns four starters and is really deep this season,” he said. “We’re returning six seniors that are setting the tone early for what should be a promising year.”
The Kowboys were 15-10 last season after losing a double-overtime thriller to Gateway in the district semifinals.
Returning guards Tre Perry (senior) and Cortez Edwards (junior) lead an athletic group that includes seniors Alain Allard, Jamie Morris, Yullian Maldonado, Patrick Phillip and Adam Williams.
Juniors are Orlando Martinez, Edtwain Black, Nasir Alexander, Miguel Beltran and Will Vidot.
Freshman Germele Florent is a 6-3 forward.
Alexander is testing his team against strong competition, which includes dates against Orlando Christian Prep, Oak Ridge, Dr. Phillips, IMG Academy and Lake Highland Prep.
The Kowboys started 4-3 after competing against several state-ranked teams at tournaments at Montverde Academy and Seminole County.
The Kowboys cruised by Celebration, 84-53, Wednesday in a 7A-5 game as Martinez scored 25 and Phillip added 17.
“I think we are pretty tough but we will be tested early and often, hopefully getting us prepared for long run,” Alexander said.
The Panthers, who reached the regional playoffs for the second time last season, return four of five starters under Coach Bob Baker.
Gateway again will face a strong challenge from Osceola in the district, but Baker believes his team has the talent and experience to succeed.
“I’m cautiously optimistic with an experienced team that knows how to win,” he said. “They work very hard and are a bunch of fighters. They never seem to be out of a ballgame no matter what the score.”
Point guard Giovanni Guzman (7 apg.), last season’s News-Gazette Player of the Year, returns for his senior season along with Felix Gonzalez, a two-year varsity starter who averaged 20 points last year.
Justin Peters (12 ppg.) and junior Juan Mena (7 ppg.) also return.
David DeloSantos and Adam Geiger (6-6 senior) return, although Geiger will be sidelined with an injury through midseason.
Collin Wigfall a junior transfer from New Jersey, joins the roster, which also includes seniors Dominic Jerome, Arnaldo Campbell and Anthony Moll. Juniors William Short and Kris Quinones and sophomore Reggie Rivera round out the roster.
The Panthers improved to 4-1 Wednesday after a 65-46 win over Liberty in 7A-5.
Mena led the Panthers with 28 points.
Coach Shane Whitsett switches from the girls to the boys sideline for this season.
He takes over a team that shows potential, but one that will be in a competitive district, 6A-8, that includes 2012 state champion Lake Wales. The Eagles were runners-up in a Polk County summer league.
“I expect us to be very competitive this season. The team will have to adjust to a new system, so it may take some time for them to learn what we want to do offensively,” he said. “On the defensive side of the ball, things should come a lot easier for the players and the team.”
Four players, two starters, return from last year’s team.
Isaiah Moody, Trevaughn Packer, Anthony Gomes, Marquis Strickland, Brandon Murat and Taron Mallard are the team’s key players, Whitsett said.
“We expect to be competitive in our Polk County district, as well as our conference,” he said.
The Eagles are 5-1 after edging Auburndale, 63-61, Wednesday. Strickland scored 19 and Mallard had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
The Eagles edged Celebration, 73-71, in overtime Thursday as Moody had 21 and Strickland 19.
Bob Lauster begins his second season as the Chargers coach.
Lauster said that the team has a good core of seven returning players who will be joined by several talented newcomers.
“Our team will have more length and athleticism than we did last year and I expect that will enable us to be better rebounders and defenders,” he said. “We have talked with our kids a lot about buying into the system and sacrificing individual success to benefit the team. Our experiences playing AAU this past summer and fall have helped our kids understand this more.”
Lauster said he wants to see good ball movement and aggressive rebounding from his team.
“We have potential to be pretty good,” he said.
Returning are Rayshawn Palmer, Gardy Joisil, Brandon Bradley, D.J. Ellebb, Rickenjee Bellevue, Luis Hernandez and Michael Parke.
“They should help us with their experience and leadership,” Lauster said.
Newcomers include T’Kary Birmingham, Dawan Williamson, Dee Turner and Kimar Edwards.
“They are good additions and they help to increase our athleticism and toughness,” Lauster said.
The Chargers are 5-2.
Coach Steve Smith has lots of teaching to do this season with only one returning varsity player, Andrew Weathers (7 ppg.).
“So, our immediate problem is lack of experience,” he said. “I feel we will better each time we play another game.”
Smith is confident that newcomers like sophomore guards George Brocato and Pierce Vermillon will play well, along with junior post players Phillip Smith and Luis Martinez.
“We will have a lot of different line ups until we figure out what they can do,” he said. “The district is tough so we will have to grow up fast.”
Smith said the team will play a half-court game to control the tempo.
“I think we will be much different in January than we are in December,” he said.
Coach John Jenkins returns to lead the Bulldogs, who will have as many as four sophomores on the floor.
“We are going to be very young this year,” he said. “We only have two returning players with varsity experience, and one of those was a freshman last year.”
Senior Anthony Smith, a 6-3 center, is one of the returning players. Guard Stone Gonzalez, 6-2, is one of the sophomores Jenkins will use regularly.
Coach Jeff Bean returns for his eighth season after leading the Storm into the regional playoffs.
Although the team has joined favorites Gateway and Osceola in the difficult 7A District 5, Bean thinks his team has the experience and size to be a factor.
“We are returning our two leading scorers (Kordell Johnson and Johnny Victor, both seniors) and point guard (senior Fernando Lucchetti), all three-year starters,” Bean said.
Junior Chris Bowman and center Zach Reddy, a senior, also return along with transfer guard Luis Rivera.
Victor and Bowman are 6-5, and Reddy is 6-8, giving the Storm plenty of altitude.
“With eight returning seniors, I think experience is going to be big for us,” Bean said. “Head to head games will be the key. I think the district seeding will play a major role when the season ends. Keeping healthy will be the key for us. Losing Kordell in the regional game was big last year. If we stay healthy, I like our chances to return.”
The Storm are 3-2.
The Eagles had a disappointing ending to their 2012-13 season after they were edged by West Melbourne in the second round of the FCC playoffs.
This year’s team already has avenged that loss with an 11-point victory Nov. 15, and it would like to do much more before the season ends.
How about another conference championship?
“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team,” Coach Jim Estrella said. “We have the talent to win a championship; I don’t know if we have the experience.”
Estrella started five freshmen against West Melbourne, so the experience question is legitimate.
One of those freshmen, Jacob Newman, has started since he was a seventh grader and he is showing signs of developing into one of the county’s best players. He averaged 30.7 points after the team’s first four games.
“My assistant coach played with (Gateway standout) Keaton Grant (who later started at Purdue), and he said that Jacob is better as a freshman than Keaton was,” Estrella said.
Newman scored 34 against West Melbourne.
The other freshmen are Alexius Archibald Jr., Eduardo Albert, Juan Mejia and Timothy Sikorski.
Dominick Maldonado, a junior, was the conference MVP last season and provides veteran leadership. Senior Raymond Rodriguez and juniors Mark Wiley, Manny Rodriguez and Isaiah Maldonado round out the varsity roster.
The Eagles won their first four games and are one of the favorites to win the FCC’s East Division.
“The guys are working hard and we’re doing a lot of good things,” Estrella said. “This should be an exciting season for us.”
Coach Javier Gonzalez led the Flames to the Florida Christian Conference final four last year in the school’s first year in the conference, and he is looking forward to similar success this season.
“This season, we look to go further than we did last year,” he said.
Sophomore Louis Arroyo, a FCC all-star last year, runs the team at point guard.
Coach Kevin Huber takes over a Tigers program that has struggled since Ryan Adams departed two seasons ago to become Osceola County’s athletics coordinator.
Huber is counting on a group of seniors to lead the way. They are Jordan Garcia, Roojamesley Belizaire, Richard Pierre-Pierre and Carl Dorsainvil.
The juniors are James Persaud, Josh Marrero, Eli Morris, Oscar Castillo, Devin Moronta, Jalen Fargharson and Brian Andujar. Sophomore Terrill Williams also is on the roster.
Huber said the 3A District 8 race will be challenging with Lakeland Christian being the primary roadblock.
City of Life Academy
Coach Ron Riley returns to lead the Warriors, who have switched to 2A-6 against Polk County competition this year.
“I think we’ll compete in that district. There are good programs there, but our program is improving. We lost three seniors, but we have a lot of good young players,” Riley said.
City of Life enjoyed one of its most impressive victories Tuesday against Harmony, 43-30. It was the first victory for the Warriors against one of the county’s large public high schools.
“It was an important win for our program. The kids got excited about it,” Riley said.
E.D. Edouard scored 14 points and Carlos Morales added 10 points against Harmony.
Those two, along with forwards Josean Quijano and Carlieck Martin, and guard David Cardona, lead the Warriors, who started the season 3-1.
“We want to run, that’s our style. Defensively, we do some different things in the half-court. We want to play great defense, and our kids are very good about working hard in practice. They are improving,” Riley said. “We have three seniors this year, so we’ll have a lot of good young players coming back. I think you are going to hear a lot about the City of Life program in the coming years.”