When it comes to boys basketball, Osceola High has been the dominate program in the county for most of the last three decades. But that could change this year, as Harmony is among a couple of teams that could challenge the Kowboys for the Orange Belt Conference championship in the 2022-23 season.
Harmony, who moves from 6A to 7A this season, is coming off a solid 16-10 record last season and returns their top three scorers in Miguel Tirado (12.9 ppg), Rafael Balines (11.6 ppg, 9 rpg) and center Caden Scarborough (6.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
That core group of seniors will be aided by Jeremy Penner and Syrus Cory, a pair of young players that were able to make the varsity roster last year as freshman. Senior Teancum Paxman, an out-of-state transfer, moved into the Harmony school zone and has shown tremendous promise in the pre-season. With that addition, the Longhorn will have a veteran, experienced roster.
The move up a class is an interesting one for the Longhorns. It not only puts them in the same class and region with the tough Orlando schools but also puts them in the same district as Osceola, which means the two schools could be headed for a collision course in both the district tournament, as well as the OBC Tournament.
“The move up a class is going to be difficult as it puts us in the same region as those loaded Orange County schools. Obviously, the district will still run through Osceola,” Longhorn coach Duke Leonardo said. “Still we are setting our goals high. Harmony has never won a district championship and that remains biggest goal for this season.”
At least one other opposing coach agrees that Harmony may be the team to beat.
“Osceola is Osceola, but they lost a lot of kids and are going to be young,” the coach who requested to remain anonymous said. “He (Leonardo) runs a good program and he has some talented, experienced players. I would probably call them favorites for OBC this year.”
Still, it is always hard to discount Osceola.
They were hit hard by attrition, as five starters or rotation regulars – including all-county standouts Cory Vega and Chris Combs – graduated and leading scorer Sean Combs transferred from a team that went 20-6 last year and advanced to a regional final. Although 90% of their offense does not return, it would be a mistake to overlook the Kowboys.
The reason stems from the fact that Osceola will see a new influx of talent from their junior varsity program. Starting four freshmen and a sophomore, that JV team recorded a perfect 19-0 record last year with an average margin of victory of 35 points.
Those new players moving up include Alex Springs (19 ppg), Jordan Mundle (11 ppg, 5 rpg), sharpshooter Mason Tinnin (average four three-pointers per game), and point guard Josiah Cotto (8 ppg and 6 assists per game). Add that talent to senior captain Ryan Rivera – an outstanding three-point shooter – and the Kowboys’ roster simply reloaded for the coming season.
“We had a great season last year but most of those kids are gone,” Kowboy coach Steve Mason said. “What is really encouraging is this year’s team seems to be hungrier than ever. They understand the tradition of Osceola basketball and they are ready to contribute and make their own marks on that history.”
Several other teams are also looking for successful seasons, including Gateway and Celebration. Playing in 5A, District 7, Gateway has traditionally been one of them more successful boys’ basketball programs in Osceola County. Last season, the Panthers won 18 games, took Osceola to the wire in a 54-53 loss and earned an at-large bid to regionals.
Although Coach Travis James loses his top two scorers off of last year’s 18-9 team in Jordan Birmingham (10.8) and Jeremy Valez (10.6); he returns five solid contributors in Dimas Cervantes (7.0 ppg), Robert Collins (8.1 ppg), Gabriel Melendez (5.4 ppg), Yangel Malpica (4.0 ppg) and Aiden Lake (3.0 ppg). James also believes that senior Deshawn Williamson, who transferred from St. Cloud a year ago but had to sit out last season under FHSAA rules, could be a major contributor this season.
“Losing our top two scorers to graduation is a major factor,” James said. “But I like the players we have coming back and our goals remain the same. We may start slow this year, but hopefully we’ll get better as the season progresses and we can make another run in the post-season.”
Celebration, who joins Harmony and Poinciana in the same district as Osceola, is coming off a winning 13-10 season and Tom Bonnane’s team will look for leadership from two returning seniors in Mitchell Sparks (14.1 ppg) and Griffin Davis (9.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Nassim Bontayah, Andy Ndambo and Jedediah Sankitts move up from junior varsity and out-of-state transfer Eli Wilkins are expected to be regular contributors.
“This year we hope to continue the winning ways at CHS. We will be relying heavily on our senior leader ship and hope that our underclassmen will develop like we think they can,” Bonanne said. “Mitchell and Griffin will lead the way and hopefully the youngsters perform up to the potential.”
Although they finished with a 6-14 record last season, Poinciana defeated Liberty and Harmony to make a surprising run to the District Finals last year. Top returning players include Elijah Davis and Xavier Barnes; while first-year players senior guard Abe Lougurre and sophomore forward Hakeem Alvena will factor in.
“We are looking forward to playing a more up-style offense as our roster is more athletic this year,” Coach Craig Walls said. “We still will have a very young team that will look forward to competing and getting better as the season goes along. We are excited about our new district and getting to play OBC teams multiple times throughout the season.”
Tohopekaliga posted its first non-losing season last year –finishing 11-11 and making a run to the district finals where they lost 82-52 to Osceola in the title game. It was a remarkable turnaround for the Tigers as they had won just 13 games in the previous four years.
The upcoming season may be a rebuild, as Toho lost its two top players to graduation in Orlando Descartes (9.1 ppg) and All-OBC guard Josh Camejo (17.6 ppg); leaving Jevon Andrews-Brown (8ppg, 4rpg), Steven Almonte (4 apg) and Victor Munyao (4 ppg, 4rpg, 3apg) as the returning veteran players; while senior Jhaeem Azimyt and freshman Jesiah Merced are promising newcomers.
“We lost some outstanding players to graduation,” Head Coach Jesus Merced said. “Our goals are simple. We want to compete in every game, try to get to .500 and qualify for the district championship game.”
St. Cloud head coach Brad Weber is in the process of rebuilding the St. Cloud program. He has two solid veterans in DJ Hollingsworth and Jake Dabrowski – a pair of senior forwards – to lead the team; while newcomers Isaiah Seger (Sr., F), Jacob Rodriguez (Sr., G) and Marquize Reynolds (So., G) are all expected to be major contributors.
“It’s a new roster and our biggest challenge will be to develop chemistry on the court. I feel good about the talent we have and love the work ethic and attitude of the players. There’s definite reason to feel optimistic heading into the season,” Weber said.
Liberty is coming off a 4-16 season but will have seven seniors including guards Omar Usher and Jonathan Frederick to provide leadership. Look for sophomore Lawrence Kelley IV to continue to develop after earning a spot on the varsity as a freshman.
The Season Opening Games for County Schools:
- Nov. 22 Centennial at Osceola
- Nov. 28 Tohopekaliga at Harmony
- Nov. 28 Davenport at Celebration
- Nov. 28 Lake Buena Vista at St. Cloud
- Nov. 29 Cypress Creek at Gateway
- Nov. 30 Mater Brighton Lakes Academy at Poinciana
- Dec. 1 Liberty at New Dimensions