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Ready, aim, fire!

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

WESLEY CHAPEL -- Welcome to the official headquarters of raised expectations.

At Wesley Chapel, winning is no longer enough. Simply making it to the postseason won't do.

The Wildcats must not only win, but win big -- big, meaningful games on the road to Lakeland. They must win the kind of games that can bring a state title back home to this burgeoning central Pasco suburb. Kind of like the games they won last season.

Returning every player save two from a 25-8 team that made it to the Class 3A state semifinals will do that to a program.

"The goal is to get back to Lakeland, plain and simple," coach Kent Mills said. "Last year's goal was to get past the district, to get into the playoffs and experience playoff basketball.

"I've told them that at Wesley Chapel, in my opinion, it's no longer acceptable not to get past the first round. The expectation of this program is to make the playoffs from now on and to get past the first round of the playoffs."

And the expectation this season is for the fourth-year program to get back to Lakeland, and this time to the state championship.

"Basically we want to try to repeat," shooting guard Eric Sorensen said. "To get back to state. To get back to the final four. To get to the state championship."

That the Wildcats' sights are set so high should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that though Ridgewood is the defending Sunshine Athletic Conference champion, it is last year's postseason run that makes Wesley Chapel, ranked seventh in the first Class 3A poll, the team to beat.

What a long, strange trip it was last season. Wesley Chapel swept Class 4A, District 8 champion Gulf, which swept Ridgewood three times to win the district. Wesley Chapel was in turn swept by Ridgewood for the SAC crown. Then the Wildcats almost didn't make it out of the district, needing a shot at the buzzer to tie Pasco in a district semifinal and then overtime to win it.

Wesley Chapel went on to beat Bartow to win the district, then defeat Tampa Catholic in the region quarterfinals, then stun No. 3 Immokalee at home in the region semifinals, then take out No. 10 Avon Park on the road in the region final.

Wesley Chapel arrived in Lakeland for the Class 3A state semifinals as the only team not ranked in the top four. No. 2 St. Augustine Nease handily won 80-53 and went on to win the title.

But the team that returns this season may be even better. True, the Wildcats are without the veteran savvy of point guard Spencer Honeycutt or the maturity of forward Sandor Riholm. Yet they could arguably have the top three players in the county at their positions: point guard Zach Mills, 3-point specialist Sorensen and post player David Simpson.

Those three lead a talented, veteran cast.

"We have more leadership, more maturity, than last year," Sorensen said. "We've grown more as a team and grown more mature as a group. Instead of just having a couple of leaders, we know we have a whole group of leaders to help lead this team."

Now, when Wesley Chapel engages in that frenetic, University of Kentucky-style fastbreak offense, 3-point bombing and fullcourt press, coach Mills doesn't see any let-up. The Wildcats are all business.

"The best part of this team is that, more than I've seen before, we have a bunch of leaders," the coach said. "There is no loss of focus in games, there is no monumental breakdowns during practice.

"They are all focused."

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