Kissimmee Osceola brought back the three sophomores who helped spark its run to last season’s Class 9A boys basketball state championship.
Josh Marte, Omar Payne and Isaiah Palermo, now juniors, are joined in the gym by the best player from rival Gateway, Jaduhkiss Soto, and another wave of young talent.
“The competition is through the roof every day in practice,” Osceola coach Nate Alexander said. “We’re deep.”
It’s the same story of expanded talent at the other two Central Florida schools that won state titles in 2016-17, perennial power Orlando Christian Prep and Leesburg, as a new season tips off this week. Maybe moreso at Oak Ridge – which lost a region final nailbiter at Osceola and comes back with a new coach and new players added to its stockpile of skill.
Steve Reece, new to high school head coaching at Oak Ridge but immersed in the basketball scene as director of the powerhouse Each 1 Teach 1 travel team program, had college prospects who would be the best player at most high schools scratching for playing time in preseason practices.
Then there’s the pipeline to the pros at Montverde Academy, the Lake County boarding school that again houses an international lineup that would make college teams envious. The Eagles have two All-American candidates from Canada, national No. 1 senior R.J. Barrett (bound for Duke) and Florida point guard signee Andrew Nembhard, leading a squad that could bring coach Kevin Boyle another national championship. The Eagles already have three under Boyle’s watch.
A key addition this year is Oak Ridge transfer Mike Devoe, a Georgia Tech signee who compliments Barrett and Nembhard perfectly as a 6-foot-4 knockdown shooter.
“Their second group would be a national top 50 team,” SourceHoops recruiting analyst Rick Staudt said as he watched Montverde divide its talent to play a purple and gold scrimmage last week. “I think it’s the deepest team Montverde has had since they started this journey as a national power.”
Montverde, which was 26-5 last season, doesn’t chase state championships. It piles up major college prospects and plays a national schedule. This year, it’s international. The Eagles will fly all the way to China to play in a December international event. They’ll stop in Hawaii on the return trip to play the Iolani Classic.
Montverde counts on finishing its season as one of the eight teams invited to the Dick’s Sporting Goods Nationals tournament, March 29-31, in New York City. The Eagles have played the event eight years in a row – winning three times and finishing runners-up twice.
The bigger question is whether or not another area squad can be good enough to become the first area state title team to join Montverde at nationals since Austin Rivers led Winter Park to the spectacle in 2011?
Reece publicly proclaimed that as a goal when he landed the Oak Ridge job in June.
“I want to do something that hasn’t been done,” he said. “We’ve got the talent and we ain’t gonna just win on talent. We’re going to be mentally tough, physically tough and prepared.”
SourceHoops projects OCP to run away with its seventh state championship in 11 seasons, Leesburg to repeat in 6A, and Oak Ridge to dethrone Osceola in 9A. It also picks another area team, 1A Wildwood, to be the best in its class.
The X-factor for Oak Ridge, a team loaded with perimeter talent, is whether or not it will have a powerhouse post presence in Emmitt Williams, a 6-foot-7 dunker who enrolled last summer after leaving IMG Academy. He was charged with rape in October.
Williams pleaded not guilty but the case is still under investigation and the status is unclear for a senior who held scholarship offers from Duke and Kansas and was hotly pursued by Florida and its SEC rivals.
The Pioneers also start the season without Texas A&m signee Antwann Jones due to a broken right hand. Sharpshooting senior Rob Perry and acrobatic junior Niven Glover will be counted on to produce points if Oak Ridge is tested earlier without all its horses. New to the Ridge roster is Damon Harge (5-10, Sr.), who played on title teams at OCP.
“When we get everybody back, we’re going to be able to play with anybody,” Reece said.
But Oak Ridge’s ambitious hope of running the table against a loaded schedule gets tested right away. The Pioneers host their Breast Cancer Awareness Classic this weekend and match up with Orlando Christian Prep on Saturday night.
The Warriors are also in the national ranking conversations thanks to five-star North Carolina recruit Nassir Little (6-7) and stellar point guard Ronaldo “Rondo” Segu (6-0, Sr.). C.J. Walker (6-7, Jr.), DeJuan Lockett (6-5, Sr.) and Jordan Goodson (6-0, Sr.) were also standouts as the Warriors mowed down 3A opponents last season and the balance is even greater with Jordan Rodriguez (6-1, Sr.) back from injury and big men Kai Jones (6-10, Jr.) and developing sophomore Kyler Rodman (6-9) added to the mix.
OCP wants to do more than simply dominate its classification again and its schedule will keep things interesting. It includes a January national TV date with Montverde, December’s City of Palms Classic tournament in Fort Myers (along with Oak Ridge); and a game at Osceola on the eve of the playoffs.
“The challenge is to be the next-level,” OCP coach Treig Burke said. “Let’s see how good we can be.”
Leesburg (23-6) returned four starters from a surprise state championship run and will be overlooked by nobody this time. Cordrayius Graham (6-0, Sr.), Keon Ellis (6-4, Sr.) and Lance Erving (6-1, Jr.) all averaged just over 13 points per game.
The deep talent pool for a select few make it fun to be a fan of the juggernauts. Probably not so much for most of their opponents in a season where it appears the premier teams have distanced themselves from the pack.
State legislation this year that further loosened FHSAA restrictions on transferring from one school to another feeds the trend. Good teams get better when they attract players who want to go along for the ride.
Montverde opens its regular season at home on Tuesday night against The Rock of Gainesville, a longtime power out of the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association. The Eagles also hosts a doubleheader on Tuesday with the Montverde girls playing Lake Highland Prep at 6 and its boys varsity facing CFCA at 7:30.
Oak Ridge plays at Timber Creek on Tuesday night before hosting its Breast Cancer Awareness Classic on Friday and Saturday.
Leesburg opens at home vs. Eustis on Tuesday and plays at West Orange on Thursday.
OCP opens at home against Lake Howell on Thursday night.