Are we there yet?
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
How much longer must we wait?
Two months into the season, two things are apparent: Ridgewood is the class of Class 4A, District 8, and Wesley Chapel is the class of Class 3A, District 10.
Their styles are different -- the Rams are patient on offense, the Wildcats play at full-throttle -- yet at heart both are the same.
Both are talented, versatile and veteran units. Both believe in defense. Both are hard-nosed, physically and mentally. Both are strong from the backcourt to the front and down through the bench. Both are very, very ambitious.
And both must play each other. Twice. To decide the Pasco County crown, the Sunshine Athletic Conference championship.
"When those two square off, it's going to be packed, I guarantee it," Land O'Lakes coach Dave Puhalski said. "Those two teams are on a collision course."
But not quite yet.
Because these two don't meet ... until February.
Their Feb. 4 battle at Ridgewood and Feb. 15 rematch at Wesley Chapel were already highly-anticipated games after last season, when the Rams swept the Wildcats to win the SAC.
Last season, a college-type atmosphere surrounded the games, both among the best played that season. In the first meeting, Ridgewood's Andrew Reed ended a fourth-quarter chess match between both with a tip-in at the buzzer in a 59-57 win.
In their rematch -- also a week later, just like this year's series -- the Rams again prevailed 70-60 on the road as Chris Halkitis scored 25 and went 16-of-17 at the line. It was the first time in the SAC's 11 years that the title was decided head-to-head in the season finale.
And it looks like this season could be the second.
Both coaches know how big their impending matchup will be, and neither is looking ahead either. But at least they'll talk about it.
"I keep hearing they're better than last year," Ridgewood coach Gary Anders said. "All those guys are a year older and have had a tremendous year of experience under their belts."
That's because being swept by Ridgewood helped propel Wesley Chapel to a postseason run that didn't end until the Class 3A state semifinals.
"I think it certainly helped prepare us," Wildcats coach Kent Mills said. "You won't find a much better coached team than coach Anders has.
"As much as you love having a conference championship, you should be preparing for playoff basketball."
Both coaches hope to use this year's series to prepare both for playoff runs again.
But then, with both teams rapidly sewing up the top seeds in their respective districts, those two games may be the only bit of drama and excitement left in the regular season.
Both have the best regular-season records in the county -- the Rams are 16-1, the Wildcats 14-1 -- and both are the only undefeated SAC teams -- Ridgewood is 9-0, Wesley Chapel 8-0.
Another factor to consider is that both teams return almost intact, save for the loss of starting guards Mike Argerenon of Ridgewood and Spencer Honeycutt of Wesley Chapel.
Ridgewood's Chris Halkitis and Wesley Chapel's Zach Mills are both top playmakers, and, together with Mills' teammate Eric Sorensen, all three are potent 3-point threats.
The Rams' Andrew Reed and Wildcats' Davis Simpson are both among the county's top post players. Ridgewood's Nate Bradley and Wesley Chapel's Tyrone Tomlin provide nonstop hustle and rebounding.
Both benches are deep, and both are playing with a lot of confidence.
"What makes us so good is that we have that belief in each other, just like we had last year," coach Mills said. "We play with a little swagger, and I think Ridgewood has that same swagger."
The Rams should. Ridgewood was one of the few teams to handle Wesley Chapel's press last season.
"We were very fortunate to be able to take care of the ball against them," Anders said. "That was then. We have to see if we can do it again."
The Wildcats went to the state semifinals last year yet couldn't even win their own county. As if being swept last year wasn't motivation enough, there's this:
Wesley Chapel is 0-6 lifetime against Ridgewood.
Said Mills: "That stays with the players."
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