By: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola
Both small and large changes will be apparent this year in basketball after the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) announced its new classifications for the 2022-23 season that begins with training camps opening on Oct. 24.
The only thing that did not change was the fundamental way the teams would be divided. There was some talk among administrators and coaches about adopting the football model, where schools were divided into one of four classes (1A-4A) but also into two divisions (Metro and Suburban). But in the end, it was decided to stay with seven classes (1-A through 7-A) based solely on population.
“To tell the truth, I was sort of hoping it would go the other way,” Gateway boys coach Travis James said. “In the long run, I do think it would have benefitted schools in smaller counties. But at the end of the day, I think they wanted to see how it works in football for a year or two before trying it with other sports.”
Among the interesting changes is a more compact district for many of the Osceola County schools.
With Harmony moving from 6A to the larger 7A classification, the Region 2, District 6 (both boys’ and girls’ teams) features five county schools with Osceola, Tohopekaliga, Celebration and Poinciana joining the Longhorns. Nearby Lake Nona (Orange County) was placed in the group to round out the district.
Osceola boys’ head coach Steve Mason noted the new district makes a lot of sense. “It’s really something they should have been doing all along. It’s been my experience that our biggest gates have come when we have played in-county schools. It creates excitement for both the players and the community. The idea that road teams will have short bus rides for district regular season and tournament games also is a plus.”
Although the Kowboys lost several key players off of last year’s regional final team that went 20-6, Osceola will reload with promotions from a junior varsity team that went undefeated last season. Osceola also returns veteran leadership in Chris Rios, Ryan Rivera and Jimarion McCrimon.
A major change for Osceola is the switch from Region 3 to Region 2 this season. A neighboring district in region 2 features four state powers in Dr. Phillips, Oak Ridge, Olympia and Windermere; while the other two districts in the region feature powers in the Vero Beach – Palm Beach area.
“On paper, we are certainly in a tougher region,” Mason noted. “But there’s no sense worrying about the things you can’t control. The fact of the matter is that once you get past the first round of regionals, you are pretty much assured of having to play a pretty good basketball team in the next round. In order to win a championship, does it really matter whether you play those teams in the regionals or at states?”
Liberty and St. Cloud’s teams were placed in District 6A, Region 2, District 7 with Bartow, Kathleen, Lake Gibson, and Lakeland. Lady Bulldogs coach Chad Ansbaugh said the new district is “probably a little tougher on the boys side but also features some quality opponents on the girls’ side.”
Ansbaugh’s team, despite graduating several outstanding seniors from the previous year including Clemson signee Eno Inyang, surprised many last year with a freshmen and sophomore lineup that won 20 games and advanced to the regional finals. Lake Gibson, who St. Cloud upset 55-53 in the regional semifinals last year, will most likely be a co-favorite in the district.
St. Cloud returns 11 letter winners, including leading scorers Emily Lockey (15.0 ppg) and Danzy Mantilla (9.5 ppg, 4.1 apg).
Gateway will compete in Class 5A, Region 2, District 7 with Auburndale, Davenport, Jones, Lake Buena Vista, Lake Region and Lake Wales. It is a very similar district as last year with LBV and Davenport replacing Bishop Moore and Lake Minneola as the only changes.
“Jones and Auburndale are always really good teams and will be our main obstacles this season,” James said. “But in terms of talent and leadership, we have a really good senior class coming back and I am looking forward to this new season.” Gateway went 18-7 under James last year and advanced to regional play. Among those seniors expected to contribute and provide leadership are Dimas Cervantes, Robert Collins and Aiden Lake.
On the girls’ side, Gateway coach Justin Marino has solid group of veterans and exciting newcomers as the Panthers went 22-8 last year and made it all the way to the regional finals where they lost a heart- breaking 37-35 decision to Bishop Moore.
The Panthers will rely on sharp-shooting guards Maylana Stevenson (14.2 ppg) and Vanessa Diaz (17.0 ppg) to lead the way.
All public county teams will participate in the Orange Belt Conference Championship Tournament. St. Cloud will host the single-elimination, girls’ tournament on the week of Jan. 17-20; while Tohopekaliga will host the boys’ tournament the week of Jan. 17-20.
Among private schools, City of Life will play in Class 2A, Region 2, District 8 with All-Saints (Winter Haven), Legacy (Ocoee) and Victory Christian (Lakeland); while Mater Academy will be a Class 2A independent and will not be eligible for state playoff action.