Celebration, the undefeated Orange Belt Conference champion, Osceola and City of Life Christian all qualified for the regional playoffs last season as district runner-ups. District and OBC races will be tight again this season.
Heritage Christian looks to defend its back-to-back Florida Christian Conference title.
Sarah DiLeonardo, in her second season leading the Kowgirls, has a lineup that can return to the District 9A-7 championship game, where OHS has lost the last two years to Haines City.
The team was 12-14 last season but returns was the coach calls “a pretty solid lineup”, anchored by senior point guard Taylor Stelley, already a signee with Belmont Abbey (N.C.) College, and junior shooting guard Jaden Langer. Stelley scored 32 in a win Monday over Auburndale, and Langer netted 34 Tuesday on 10-of-17 from three-point range against Lake Wales.
Seniors Naquana Gray and Tiara Cruz play forward, and freshman Kyla Cruz is also seeing minutes alongside her sister.
“This is both a talented and hardworking group of athletes that have the potential to do some great things this season,” DiLeonardo said. “I look forward to the successes that we will have as a team. I am anticipating a successful and fun season.”
If the Bulldogs fill up the hoop with three-point shots like they’re capable, Coach Chad Ansbaugh’s team could return to the top of the OBC standings this year and make a regional run despite lacking any seniors.
The offense will run through junior Bailey Ansbaugh and sophomore Beka Benge, who combined for over 100 three-pointers last season. The team will feed off the energy of junior forward Rakela Cummings, and sophomore swing guard Erin Maloney saw starts last year as a freshman and has earned a bigger role, Ansbaugh said.
Junior Destinee Wright returns from a year off to add athleticism and extra scoring from the post. Freshman Moriah Sanchez, Angie Rodriguez, and Eno Inyang, who scored 30 points in a 50-49 season-opening loss to Cypress Creek, are already contributing, along with junior Hazel Rodriguez and sophomores Kenzie Brantley, Ivy Gordon, and Yazmin Padilla.
“With no seniors we feel like our program will continue to grow and match our recent success,” Ansbaugh said.
The Bulldogs opened the season 2-1 with wins over University and Cornerstone Charter.
The Storm went 23-3 last season and claimed the conference crown under Coach Beltran Munoz, but finished the year with losses in the District 8A-6 title game to Melbourne and in the regionals to Ocala West Port; both made deep playoff runs.
Priscilla Smeenge, last year’s county Player of the Year, graduated and is now at the University of Michigan, but senior point guard Gabby Suarez returns with 1,000 career points and having averaged 16 points per game, along with junior shooting guard Khaila Yu.
Senior forward Alyssa Rayko played at Celebration as a freshman, has moved back and is contributing. Sophomores Selina Rivera and Mariana Gomez and senior Signe Pedersen add to the scoring punch.
“The coaching staff is excited as we returned almost 75 percent of our program and expect to build off our success last season,” Munoz said.
Four seasons ago, the Longhorns were in the Class 7A state title game. Now, Paul Strauch is restocking the program for a run in District 8A-6.
Senior Hailie Atkins and sophomore Taitiyana Taylor form the post presence. The rest of the lineup is smallish guards: seniors Brooke Barber, Ashli Burkhalter, juniors Allison Richardson, Ty Green and Andrea Santiago and sophomore Ronnie Carlozzi.
“We could struggle early on,” said Strauch, who saw the Longhorns defeat Gateway 33-32 on Wednesday. “I think Osceola should win state, and in district Melbourne and St Cloud will be good. Celebration has a lot of good talent too.”
The Eagles may start the year short on experience, but Coach Wayne Ricks is throwing that lineup into the fray against a strong schedule.
The roster features only three upperclassmen — juniors — and is led by freshman guard De’Nysha Reynolds who is averaging 14 points through the first four games and has proved adept at controlling the tempo of a game. Junior Solana Pimentel has been a strong defensive presence early on, and junior Oleyka Fernandez-Ortiz has helped move the offense, Ricks said.
Sophomores Hali Vasquez, Melanie Mendoza, Dasany Cumba, Haeley Williams and Monika Sorano are also expected to contribute.
“My coaching staff has put in countless hours to get our girls ready to take on the best teams in the state and test our team’s ability to adjust and react to certain situations,” he said. “Our young group has already and continues to show great potential.”
Panthers Coach Trent Davis characterizes his team as “maybe a little under sized but scrappy.
“We are going to be young but talented. We play good team ball and with a fast pace,” he said.
Junior Anissa Tuitt will lead the team on both sides of the ball.
Sophomore Gyomara Ramos can play both guard spots. “I’m looking forward to seeing her progress,” Davis said.
“Overall I think we will turn out to be okay. We just have to work hard and believe in the system and things will go fine.”
City of Life
Despite being the No. 1 seed at the District 2A-5 tournament last season, but fell to Geneva School in the final. Warriors Coach Ray Buggs brings back much of the scoring punch from that 19-5 team.
Junior sisters Debra Buggs, the leading scorer at 11.1 points per game, and point guard Reyna Buggs, the distributor, return along with freshman defensive stopper Omega Payton.
The team lost a six-footer to transfer but inherited two more, Sade Bass and 6-3 post player Kianie Cummings from Atlanta. Eighth-grader Samantha Theus, who played varsity last year, is also in the mix.
The Warriors, never ones to shy away from competition in their over decade-long existence, will test themselves against larger public school programs Poinciana (a 66-30 win), St. Cloud on Monday and Osceola, Lake Nona and Liberty in January.
Abby Amato, an Eagles’ assistant last year, takes over the program in their quest for an FCC repeat. The team features six seniors, and three are big-time contributors: Sian Archibald, Alexis Greaves and Rachel Watts. At the other end of the spectrum is Natalya Perez, a sixth-grader who comes out of Heritage’s elementary program, where she played on the boys team.
“We have others who are talented who are learning their parts,” Amato said. “Come the end of the year, we’ll be in the running for the conference title again.”