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Sunday, Mar 29, 2015

Hernando Holiday Classic rings in New Year


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As the calendar flips to January, the holiday hiatus comes to end for three county girls hoops programs.

Hernando High hosts the fourth annual Hernando Holiday Classic, starting Thursday and running through Saturday night.

Eight teams comprise the field, including the host Lady Leopards plus Central and Nature Coast, joined by Citrus, Fivay, West Palm Beach-King's Academy, Plant City and South Sumter.

Hernando (9-5) starts things off with Plant City Thursday at 1 p.m.

"I know it's our tournament, but we feel it's a pretty good tournament," Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger said. "This year I'm not too familiar with the teams. That's not a bad thing. When you're playing in a holiday tournament you want to play teams that are not usually on your schedule."

Plant City (6-7) specifically is one of the teams that are an unknown in this area, as is King's Academy, who will play Fivay at 3 p.m.

The other side of the bracket of this tournament, which guarantees each team three games, is more well-known. Central (5-7) takes on Citrus at 5 p.m. and Nature Coast (11-2) battles South Sumter at 7 p.m.

For the Lady Sharks, this event would seem to offer a chance at redemption on a couple of levels.

Nature Coast has participated in the three previous Hernando Holiday Classics, and hasn't fared well, going a combined 2-6.

"The last two years we've really struggled," Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore said. "We're looking to come out a little stronger. We've got South Sumter in the first round and we're hoping to show up well and play well with a lot of energy and effort, get a win the first game and take it from there."

So far this season the Lady Sharks have looked strong, paced by junior center Rita Jarque averaging 17.8 points, 15.5 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.2 blocks.

Another junior, point guard Fatima Jones, chips in 14.8 points, 4.3 steals and 3.4 assists per contest, though she missed Nature Coast's last game Dec. 18 at Hernando with a concussion.

Gore expects her back for the tournament to join senior Mirandas Jones (10.6 points, 3.7 steals) and junior Emmalee Harris (7.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals) in the backcourt.

According to Gore, Nature Coast's big goal over the next few days is preparing for a rematch with chief Class 5A, District 7 rival Pasco, who beat the Lady Sharks on Dec. 6, 58-49.

The other loss this season for Nature Coast came at the hands of Citrus on Nov. 21, 78-57.

Should both the Lady Sharks and Lady Hurricanes win Thursday - or if they both lose - they'd face on Friday.

Gore indicated her team is looking forward to receiving another crack at Citrus, hoping to erase the memory of that foul-plagued defeat over a month ago.

But the coach isn't trying to get too far ahead, not even wanting to project Nature Coast's chance of winning the tournament.

"We're not going to be satisfied if we go into the South Sumter game and don't come out with a victory," Gore said. "That's our main focus, playing extremely well against South Sumter."

Bittinger likewise didn't want to handicap the Lady Leopards' odds of success on their own court, though for different reasons.

Senior forward Arianna Tankersley sprained her ankle at the Lady Cat Holiday Classic up in Wildwood on Dec. 21, and there is at least some uncertainty about her status.

Her absence would create a huge void, considering she's far and away Hernando's leading scorer at 14.2 points, to go with 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

"Our offense goes through her," Bittinger said. "She's our leading scorer and she takes probably 50 percent of our shots.

"She's got to be ready to play district basketball, and that's the most important thing."

Junior guard Danielle Harvey (concussion) is also questionable, and freshman forward Ali Bronson remains sidelined by a foot injury.

"I think it'll be a good opportunity, regardless if Arianna and Danielle are 100 percent, for other players to step up," said Bittinger, whose teams have gone 3-5 in this tournament, finishing as high as second two seasons ago. "I'd like for other girls to step up and help us out a little more on the court, and I think this tournament gives them a good opportunity to do so."

Central has its own chance to avenge an earlier loss to Citrus, 62-18 on Dec. 16.

The Lady Bears have been paced all season by juniors Evelyn Anderson, Christina Lewis and Desiree McGee.

"We're playing against probably one of the strongest teams in the tournament right off the bat," Central head coach Penny Gressick said. "Then I don't know.

"It (the tournament) is a turning point. Hopefully we turn it around coming down the stretch. We've got to keep coming in every day and work hard and work together as a team."

This is also their fourth go-round in this tournament, with a combined mark of 5-4. Last year they were runners-up to St. Petersburg-Northeast, going 2-1.

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At a Glance

What: 4th annual Hernando Holiday Classic

Who: Central, Citrus, Fivay, Hernando, Nature Coast, West Palm Beach-King's Academy, Plant City and South Sumter.

When: Thursday through Saturday

Where: Hernando's Michael A. Imhoff Gymnasium

Format: Bracketed tournament guaranteeing three rounds.

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