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Second half holds intrigue, promise

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

The first half of the high school season was an appetizer of private school successes (Indian Rocks Christian and Northside Christian), spectacular plays (Marcus Morrison), and Lakewood and Largo unbeaten streaks heading into holiday play. Now for the main course.

The second half holds the promise of tight district battles, an intriguing Pinellas County Athletic Conference title game and the potential for some final four teams.

And some answers.

Is St. Petersburg really that good? Is Countryside going to sleepwalk through an entire season? Is Clearwater going to go on a run? Is Boca Ciega going to be as tough as it looked during the holidays? Will a surprise team emerge down the stretch?

Questions, questions, questions. Here are five we're wondering about:

Can anyone beat Lakewood?

Probably not around here, though Boca Ciega gave the Spartans a run at the Hooters tournament. Lakewood's only losses came to USA Today No. 1 Los Angeles Westchester and defending Class 4A state champion Lakeland Kathleen. The Kathleen loss came in overtime without starting guard Kevin Dorsey. With a healthy Dorsey, Lakewood has too much firepower for the county. Are any district races locked up?

Sure ... Lakewood's. In Class 4A, District 11, the Spartans are 3-0 with wins by 44, 51 and 64 points. Ouch. Lakewood plays Bradenton Southeast on Friday. With a win, the Spartans can sew up the No. 1 seed. Is there a more wide-open district than Class 5A, District 9?

No. Not even close. Though Largo is off to a 3-0 start, everyone is waiting to see how the Packers play without top rebounder Alvin Gunter, whose eligibility expires in two weeks. He'll still be around for district games against Clearwater (Tuesday) and Countryside (Jan. 17), but Cougars coach Randall Leath says the Packers are beatable and you can bet Clearwater's Rudy Coffin agrees.

And let's not forget East Lake, which is also 3-0 and meets Largo on Friday.

In the next two weeks, Largo either comes close to locking up the district's No. 1 seed, or the race tightens and comes down to Feb. 1, when Largo plays at East Lake and Clearwater is at Countryside.

Is there a favorite for player of the year?

Not really, though Lakewood's Morrison had moments of brilliance during the holidays, lighting up Westchester in the first half and hitting a buzzer-beater to defeat Pace. But others have meant just as much to their teams, such as Largo's Billy McDade. The 6-foot-8 shooter will be called upon to play a more physical role for the Packers once Gunter's done, but his shooting has carried his team at times. If not McDade, then point guard Mike O'Donnell, who should also increase his scoring down the stretch.

Indian Rocks Christian guard Gabe McMillen is the county's leading scorer, and some late-season pushes by dangerous Boca Ciega (with Willie Brooks) or solid Northside Christian (with Deon Troupe) could add their best players into the mix.

Based on the first half of the season, how many county teams will make the playoffs?

Well, four total from 5A-9 and 5A-10 (all-Pinellas districts) and Lakewood from 4A-11 (and we're tempted to put Dunedin in, too, but let's see how good Southeast is).

St. Petersburg Catholic from 2A-12 (and don't count out Clearwater Central Catholic in this four-team district if it gets paired with first-year Dunbar), Indian Rocks Christian from A-10 (we see a long playoff run in its future) and two from A-11 (Northside is in, and either Admiral Farragut or Keswick gets in, too). Total: nine.

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