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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

County teams hopes for better seasons


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As a whole, the 2012-13 girls basketball season in Hernando County wasn't one for the record books - at least not in a positive way.

For the first time since 1992-93, not a single local squad advanced to regionals. Worse, all six teams finished below .500.

Some building programs enjoyed a measure of success. At 9-16, Springstead posted its most wins since 2000-01, and Weeki Wachee went from 0-19 to 5-18 in its second varsity season.

But every county team enters this new campaign hoping to exhibit some significant growth.

The Lady Eagles have certainly done that the past two seasons, despite what might appear only moderate gains.

To put things in perspective, Springstead hasn't had a winning record since 1992-93. The team's single-season high for victories was established two seasons earlier, during a 13-10 run in 1990-91.

Those are the only two times the Lady Eagles, approaching 40 years of existence, have finished above .500. Third-year head coach George Bennett and his players would love to change that.

"I don't really want to put a number on the girls," Bennett said. "We talk about fulfilling our potential. We talk about maxing out. Be as good as you can be whatever that is.

"Obviously our goal is to the break the school record for wins. But I don't want to put that number on them. I don't want to limit them."

Bennett has good reason to feel optimistic. His team has already rewritten the program's record book, setting marks for single-season scoring (1,279 points), single-game scoring (80), single-season rebounds (862), blocks (98), 3-pointers made (104) and free throw percentage (64 percent).

Senior power forward Anna Poholek, the Hernando Today Player of the Year last season, returns after averaging a county-best 14.0 points along with 10.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks.

She's also the Lady Eagles' all-time leader, or tied for the lead, in 3-pointers in a game (six), rebounds in a season (238), career rebounds (563), career blocks (49), single-season blocks (27), single-season assists (49) and career assists (97).

"She's fully aware that when you achieve a certain level of success, the girls out there want what you have," Bennett said. "There's a target on her back.

"She's a great kid. She gets it. She's unselfish, hard-working. She understands it's team first and that's how she plays."

Bennett said Poholek has fully recovered from the nagging back injury that plagued her as a junior and should come back stronger.

He also predicts significant strides for the team's other All-County selection, senior shooting guard Hailey Enjeneski (11.8 points, 1.8 steals, 33 3-pointers last season).

Add in the progression of sophomore center Alyssa Clifton (5.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks as a freshman) and a healthy offseason for senior point guard Brittny Desmond, and Springstead should have a solid core in place.

A new district, Class 6A, District 10, however, presents mostly unknown opponents in St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins, Largo, Mitchell and Seminole-Osceola.

"We're just looking forward to competing and letting these girls have fun," Bennett said. "I feel like these girls have learned some tough lessons coming up. They had to cut their way through the forest. They feel battle-tested and excited to compete."

???Just as in volleyball, Central, Hernando, Nature Coast and Weeki Wachee are together in 5A-7, along with Pasco, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.

The Lady Leopards are coming off a rugged 6-16 season, and haven't partaken in a regional contest since 2002.

Yet there's ample reason to believe that can change, thanks to some key additions joining a group of returnees paced by All-County forward Arianna Tankersley.

"Time will be the true test to see if these girls can jell," fifth-year Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger said. "But in terms of basketball ability, we're so much improved from last year."

For so many seasons, Hernando's undoing has stemmed from its lack of a legitimate point guard.

Enter junior Tashara Owens, a junior transfer from two-time defending 6A state champion Orlando-Edgewater.

"She's the real deal," Bittinger said. "She can handle the ball and I'd like to believe she can match up with anyone in the county at point guard.

"I think she's definitely going to be a real difference-maker. The way she can handle the ball, she can control the pace of the game."

Another prominent newcomer is center Ali Bronson. The 5-foot-10 freshman already made her presence felt in volleyball, becoming the top hitter on a district championship squad.

"You can see her strength," Bittinger said. "It makes you kind of go, 'Wow, she's just a freshman.' Physically she's doesn't play like a freshman, but you can still see so much room for growth and maturity. I'd like to think in four years she'll be a tremendous ballplayer."

Shooting guards Brianna Brady and Danielle Harvey are back in the fold along with Tankersley, who averaged 11.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals and will now shift from power forward to her more natural position, small forward.

"I expect Arianna to be the best basketball player in the county," Bittinger said. "I tell her that. I believe she has the skillset to do it. She's hungry to have a good team. She's a captain, she was a captain last year, and that kid wants to win so bad."

Bittinger admits that the other teams in 5A-7 are likely battling for the runner-up spot behind Pasco. The Lady Pirates have gone a combined 48-6 the past two seasons and were a regional finalist in 2012-13.

Still, finally garnering an elusive regional berth feels like a possibility for the Lady Leopards.

"The last few years we haven't had a winning record, we've been one-and-done in the district tournament," Bittinger said. "We want to compete. We'll go into every game thinking we can win.

"I think there's a little bit of excitement. It's an opportunity for us to be a lot better and I think the girls are excited about that."

???Central went 10-14 last season and won the county championship, yet lost to Springstead in the first round of the district tournament.

Small forward Evelyn Anderson (11.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals) and power forward Christina Lewis (12.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals) both earned All-County honors as sophomores.

Filling in for two graduates, point guard Rhy Venturella and center Lauren Grimsland, are a pair of juniors who moved in from out of state. Jakaila Hill, from Virginia, will man the point while 5-foot-11 Desiree McGee, from North Carolina, will play in the post opposite Lewis.

"It's a fresh start," said Central head coach Penny Gressick, starting her 10th year guiding the Lady Bears. "I think we'll do very well. Obviously we're adding new people to our team. It might take us time to jell. I think once we're able to do that we'll be competitive."

The inside-outside combo of Anderson and Lewis will clearly be looked upon to carry the load.

"They were a big part of our offense as sophomores and I can see Evelyn has worked hard in the offseason," Gressick said. "I know she'll step up and improve from last year.

"Same thing for Christina. Now she's a junior and she has two years starting on varsity under her belt. She should be able to step in and produce right away."

Gressick is thrilled that Central is no longer in a district containing powerhouses Ocala-West Port and Citrus, even if Pasco is the tradeoff.

"I want us to have a shot at the end," Gressick said. "We don't want to get knocked out in the first round, and we want a legit shot to play in the district championship game."

???Nature Coast fell back to the pack after its district championship season of 2011-12, slipping to 11-15.

But with returning All-County center Rita Jarque (12.0 points, county-best 13.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 1.4 blocks) back for her junior season and an improved cast around her, things are looking up.

"We're going into a new district. I think we're a fairly talented team," said fourth-year Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore. "If we are willing to work hard and stay focused and take care of ourselves in the classroom, we should have a pretty good season."

Along with Jarque, returnees include junior guard Mirandas Jones (10.2 points, 2.5 steals).

Academic ineligibility kept junior point guard Fatima Jones from playing until the end of last season, but in six games she averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals.

Guard Latavea Sesler came up from JV as a freshman and chipped in 8.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.9 steals.

The Lady Sharks also have a transfer from Springstead, junior Emmalee Harris, who averaged 9.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 13 games last season.

"We feel like Rita has got to be a leader for us this year," Gore said. "We'll look for her to score points for us. She doesn't necessarily want to be in that role, but that's the role we need her to be in.

"Having Fatima from the start definitely helps us. Fatima is a true point guard. She can run the show out there. We need somebody like that on our team."

Though Gore, like her coaching brethren, points to Pasco as the 5A-7 favorite, she's not tempering expectations.

"At the end of it, we want to be competing for a district championship," Gore said. "We feel like if we're not in the (regional) playoffs it'll be a disappointment. We expect to win every time we step on the court and I think we have the team to do that."

???Though Weeki Wachee made incremental improvement from its first year, the Lady Hornets are essentially starting over.

There is only one returning player on the entire roster, senior guard Megan Suiters.

The team's first All-County selection, guard Sarah Robinson, simply did not come out for basketball according to third-year head coach Craig Witte.

"With all new faces, we're going day by day, game by game, working to get better," Witte said. "Our goal is to improve every week, compete in the games, don't get frustrated."

Weeki Wachee will rely on its backcourt, featuring Suiters, senior Breanna Walker, and juniors Ashley Vera and Lucia Ceccarelli.

"It'll be successful for us to win a couple games," Witte said. "We want to be peaking at the end of the year and give ourselves a chance to try to win our first-ever district (tournament) game."

Hernando Christian Academy (4-14 in 2012-13) enters the season with eight players on its roster and lacking in size.

But in the newly aligned 2A-8, the Lady Lions won't have to tangle with dominant Academy at the Lakes.

St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian and St. Pete-Canterbury figure to sit atop the district standings.

"We'll have to wait and see," HCA head coach Mike Drummond said. "I think we'll be able to compete for third place for sure. But I think it'll be tough to advance to regionals."

The Lady Lions are focusing on their defense this season, trying to take advantage of their quickness.

Junior shooting guard Chelsea Lowe "will be the heart of the team," according to Drummond.

"I think a successful season for us, if we can get third place in the district," Drummond said. "It'd be disappointing not making the (regional) playoffs again. But I think only having eight players and not having size, third place would be a good accomplishment."

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