Note: Previews of the county's private and charter school teams will appear online Monday. See Saturday's News-Gazette print edition for that story.
Osceola won the first Class 9A boys hoops state title in 2017, then came one win from returning to the state tournament last year. They’re a favorite to play in the District 9A-7 title game this year, chased by Gateway and a Polk County contingent.
Celebration made it out of District 8A-6 and into the regional playoffs.
Heritage Christian will chase another Florida Christian Conference title after finishing runner-up last year.
The Kowboys, who also advanced to the Class 8A championship game in 2015, played a thriller of a 9A Region 2 final last year at Oak Ridge that could have just as well been the state title game. Osceola led late but a pair of costly turnovers let the Pioneers take the lead and the 57-54 win on the way to their own state title.
If Coach Nate Alexander’s team is going to repeat that success off a 21-7 season, they’ll have to do it without a familiar post presence — 6-9 center Omar Payne, before signing to play at the University of Florida, transferred over the summer to national powerhouse Montverde Academy.
But there’s still plenty of experience and firepower to light up the OHS gym. Senior point guard Josh Marte, the county’s Player of the Year and a Bethune-Cookman signee, enters his fourth varsity season, but may play some shooting guard this year with the emergence of sophomore Josh Blazquez, to take advantage of Josh’s hot shooting.
“Principles change a little, but we played without Omar some last year so we know we can play without a ‘big’ on the floor, we just have to defend better,” Alexander said. “We’ll be able to throw up some different looks depending on the matchup, and maybe run it up the floor a little more with pace.”
Senior forwards Jaduhkiss Soto and Isaiah Palermo are threats to shoot and drive and defend well. Armani Thomas started at power forward much of last year as a sophomore and is back.
Jeremiah Palermo hurt his knee in the Oak Ridge game last year but has worked himself back into the rotation, joined by key reserves like Deshawn Jones, Josh Chapman, Tyvion Woodard and Quest McCrimon. Matt Kingston is a newcomer from Orlando University.
“I feel like we have nine or 10 guys that can step in and do the job, so we’ll be a contender again if all the guys buy into what we’re trying to do as a group each night.”
Revenge against Oak Ridge could come quick — like tonight, when the teams meet in Orlando as part of the Pioneers’ early-season tournament.
“And we’ll probably see them again in the playoffs,” Alexander quipped.
The Kowboys will again play in the City of Palms Classic (Fort Myers) and Battle of the Villages tournaments.
The Panthers were 16-7 last season under Coach (and GHS AD) Travis James and earned a first-round bye in the 9A-7 tournament as the second seed, but a trip to the district finals was dashed by George Jenkins, and he said it still sticks his players’ (and his) craws.
“Man, it would be nice to get over the hump and make it to a district final,” James said. “We have five returners but to be honest I don’t know who will be starting besides Tyreek Robinson, Jason Charles and William Mukuvi, and that could change if they get beat out.”
Robinson, the 6-6 forward who has signed with Emporia State, will produce from the post, and Charles and Mukuvi are the guards. Danell Rodriguez and Monte Muehlbauer are back from last year as well and could start but will be pushed by Mike Rodriguez, Collis Griffin, Tyrese Carabalo, Orlando Martinez and Joshnel Marte.
“Danel and Monte did start the pre-season game but we have kids that are battling for all 5 positions,” James said. “They’ll all get their opportunities but who takes advantage of it will be the biggest question. I’m excited for this season and like I said before we are long over due to advance to the district finals.”
The Storm were 19-10 last year and played tough in the county and in 8A-6, where they reached the district final before losing to an Edgewater team in the playoffs that reached the 8A Final Four in Lakeland.
Coach Corey Green welcomes back nine players off that roster, including point guard Isaiah Rivera and small forward Joseph Flores. Guards Santiago Patino, David Lacayo, Joseph Maquichauga, Anthony Reyes and Will Bohn and forward Terrell Chisholm return.
Newcomers include forwards Tyler Ferrell and Joel Pena and guards Jason Thompson, Simon Saleh and Shemar Tulloch.
"We added some transfers that filled some important holes and the boys have worked very hard in the off season, Green said. "Every man can handle the ball and shoot the ball from the arc but defense has been the consistent emphasis after last years season ended.
"We must get tougher to reach our goals and our goals are simple, and the same as everyone else’s to earn a district championship and continue to advance through the playoff hopefully ending in a state title run."
The Longhorns come off an 8-16 season, but Coach Ben Bartlett said he’s “really excited” about a new crop of talent replacing graduated seniors and the chemistry and energy they add to the team.
“I don't think many coaches get to use the word ‘Joy’ when describing their team's culture, but I've been blessed with a great group of kids who show up everyday ready to work and they see the benefit of our process. As always, it comes down to execution,” he said. “I can talk about how great we can be this year, but we're going to need to go out and do it.”
The team returns length in 6-6 senior Tyrell Pendergast and 6-7 Caeleb Bass. Guard Miles Butler is among five other seniors.
“We lost 8 games last year by 5 points or less. I have a freshman and two sophomores that are natural scoring guards, something we've been missing in years past. I think we have done the right things and added the right pieces to take the next step forward in winning those close games,” Bartlett said.
The team is overcoming bad news from the fall when senior scorer and rebounder Josh Gonzalez tore a hip labrum and is out for the year, but is still around the team.
“Basically I have another coach,” Bartlett said. “It’s rewarding to walk in and see our captain taking ownership of his team. I know he'd be out there with his teammates if he could.”
A young Bulldogs team went 8-20 last year, but nearly every starter returns to Coach Jeff Bean’s lineup
“It looks like a year's experience should make us better,” he said.
Leading scorer Darien Creasy is back along with guards Angel Arroyo, Steve Guzman and Blake Peele and sophomore power forward David Roc. Senior guard Devon King joins them along with a mixed bench of youth and seniors
“The key for us will be guard play,” Bean said. “We have people to score, it’s a matter of getting them the ball. Hopefully opening up with five of six at home and the sixth being at Toho, which isn't too far to travel, we can get off to a fast start.”
Veteran coach Richard Victor is in his second year leading the Eagles. He brought discipline and a new playing style and the team went 11-15 but built toward getting back to Lakeland, where PHS won a 5A state title in 2016, while admitting he was re-establishing his own coaching legs under him after sitting out due to an illness.
The team returns speedy guard Reggie Mesidor and 6-6 post presence Anthony Duncan, both seniors, and adds the size of 6-7 sophomore Jahsean Corbett.
Other additions include 6-5 Luis Pena from Celebration, and junior sharp shooters Fabian De Lo Rios and Gabriel Casillas from Puerto Rico.
“The culture has definitely been changed, and the guys worked hard all summer and now are stronger and quicker,” Victor said. “Now we develop the bench, and finding out who our go-to guy is. The other teams in our district (6A-13, like Bishop Moore and Leesburg) have one, but we might have a different one every night.”
The Eagles fell to West Orange, 55-54, in its season opener Tuesday after leading most of the second half.
“It just shows we’re learning some things, like mental focus and how to finish,” Victor said. “Better to do that in November than in February, I guess.”
The district also includes Tavares and Eustis. Victor said the team has the goal to “play in March,” which would take them into the regional finals.
“It’s a work in progress, but I feel good about the direction we’re going in,” Victor said.
The Chargers, also coached by their AD (Corey Edwards) saw some success last year and return a number of faces from a team that went 12-13 last year.
Their leadership will come from a core of seniors: point guard Calvin Teixeira, shooting guards Joel De Los Santos and Caleb Reeder, power forward Sterley St. Felix and 6-6 center Patrick Edwards. Forward Jacob DesAngeles and swingman Jaylen Williams are returning juniors.
"I see us competing with everyone in our district and OBC," Edwards said. "We have a good core group coming back with some experience, so that'll help us in tight games. I feel that the district is evenly balanced and anyone can win on any given night, so I'm preparing my guys to compete every night."
Jesus Merced leads the first Tigers squad to take to the Toho hardwood, and the Tiger era began well, with a 59-42 win over New Dimensions Tuesday. Their home opener was Friday against neighborhood rival Gateway.
Ten of the 13 varsity roster members scored Tuesday; juniors Tariq Cirino and Jeremiah Myers had 11 and junior Ethan Marlon and freshman Jackson Slater had 10. Bryon Bron, one of three seniors along with point guard Diego Casanova and Jhostying Cruz, had 7.
The rest of the lineup includes guards Aaidan Bon, Khayion Hopkins and Erick Vega, forwards Evan Williams and Justin Gomez and center Christian Dormevil.
"I’m excited to be a part of this program and I’m looking forward to a great year," Merced said.