Erasing painful memories
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Chris Halkitis remembers the feeling well. Because he didn't feel it just once last season.
There was that 64-34 loss to Leesburg in last season's playoff opener. And his Ridgewood team wouldn't have had to open the postseason on the road if it hadn't lost the district title the week before, at home, 62-52, to Gulf.
It was the Rams' third loss that season to the rival Bucs.
"Those losses focused me a lot," he said. "I think I took that feeling from last year -- and everyone was mad, punching lockers and all that -- and I don't think anyone wants to feel it again."
A focused Halkitis has done everything in his power this season to do just that.
Those painful losses drove the 5-foot-10 senior point guard to make the mental adjustments to his already strong physical game to elevate his team to the next level. That's why Ridgewood entered Saturday's game at Wesley Chapel with a 24-1 record and a No. 4 ranking in the state 4A poll.
The Rams already have a share of the Sunshine Athletic Conference title, and can win the Pasco County title outright with their eighth consecutive win over the Wildcats. Ridgewood has also secured the No. 1 seed in Tuesday's Class 4A, District 8 tournament, sweeping the competition in the regular season.
In fact, Halkitis' team has defeated every county team this season, including former nemesis Gulf. His team-high 17.8 points, 7.4 assists per game and 3.3 steals per game have powered Ridgewood's 14-game winning streak. This season, he became the fifth Ram to score 1,000 points in the program's 19-year history.
"He's been a good one for us for three-and-a-half years," Ridgewood coach Gary Anders said. "He's been a three-year starter out there who has become the backbone of our program, and each year he's improved."
How has he improved this season compared to the last? Then, Halkitis wanted to score to help his team win. Now, he just wants to win.
"I think I am more focused," he said. "I think I am having a better year and I don't think I'm that much better. I have a different state of mind when I play the game. I play the point guard (role) more instead of just trying to score.
"I'm really more focused on winning this year."
That two-game losing streak that ended his junior season was just the start of Halkitis' growth. He's a senior now, too, so maturity has something to do with it. So does the Florida Elite AAU team he joined in Lakeland this summer. Playing on a team stocked with top prep players, Halkitis had to play the true point guard role.
"I think it helped me in terms of, because they're all big scorers, I really wasn't the first option," he said. "But I think that helped me here, too, because I'm not just looking to score when I'm coming down on the break or setting up the offense. I think I was doing a lot of that last year, looking for my own shot. Now I'm looking to get other people a shot."
Said Anders: "I remember when he came to me last spring, he said he was going to play AAU basketball, and I told him that I thought it was the best thing he can do for himself and one of the best things that can happen to our team, because he was playing against quality people with quality people."
Halkitis' growth can be seen in practice, as well.
"I think I'm practicing harder, I'm practicing like it's a game situation," Halkitis said. "Last year I just practiced like it was a practice. Now when we run a practice, I imagine I'm in a game situation, like I'm at Wesley Chapel."
Halkitis was a midseason promotion to the varsity midway through his freshman season. Now Division II and III colleges are lining up for Halkitis' services, Anders said, and he expects his point guard to continue to grow.
All that is left for Halkitis is one goal yet unattained: a district championship. The Rams haven't won a district title since the 1997-98 season. Halkitis has never won it, and doesn't want to leave Ridgewood without it.
"We haven't won it yet, and it's really frustrating," Halkitis said. "Last year, (losing the district) just ruined our whole season. We had a bunch of wins, we had a pretty good record, and then we lost and it killed our season."
Said Anders: "As a player, all he has left to add to his resume is a district championship."
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