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Clash of powers feels like rehearsal

Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel are almost assured of meeting again when it counts: In the 4A championship.

Published January 16, 2004

WESLEY CHAPEL - As regular-season tilts go, tonight is as big as Pasco County basketball gets this year. But both Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel will tell you the real battle is weeks away, when the Rams and Wildcats likely will scrap in a district championship.

"The way the districts are this year, some of the regular-season games mean less than what they have in years past," said Rams coach Gary Anders, whose team lost 45-39 to the Wildcats last month. "But you play for pride. There are conference ramifications. It'll be a good ballgame. But I think everybody has their eyes on the district tournament."

The Wildcats (12-1), ranked ninth in Class 4A, and the Rams (9-3) likely will have the district's top seeds and opening-round byes. Sub-.500 Tarpon Springs and Gulf and struggling Hudson and Zephyrhills, who have combined for three wins, aren't likely to keep either from meeting in the district championship. That makes tonight's 7:30 tipoff something of a dress rehearsal, a healthy sparring session to whet each team's appetite for the next showdown.

"I think we've really got to execute our offense a lot better than we have in the last two weeks," Wildcats coach Doug Greseth said. "They're very solid defensively and we need to push the ball at every opportunity. I think we're a little quicker and faster than they are, but we have to play smart, solid basketball."

Ridgewood has the county's leading scorer in center Andrew Reed, whose 19.7 points a game are a fraction more than Wesley Chapel guard Chase Bussey. What hurt the Rams in the first meeting was that their perimeter options weren't enough of a threat. Reed didn't score in the final four minutes, and that allowed the Wildcats to pull away in the end. Anders said his supporting cast has grown more consistent and dependable in the five weeks since.

"I think Chris Gunter has really stepped up his all-around play," Anders said. "He's been very consistent for us, scoring and getting a lot of assists. And Mike Prendergast has shown flashes of good things for us as well."

Guards Brendan Geronimo and Mike Blum need not only to step up offensively but to slow the county's deadliest outside shooters. Wesley Chapel's Mike Auman, Bussey and Travis Lemaster have the highest 3-point percentages in the county, all hitting better than 42 percent.

Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel were able to battle for the conference crown last year - the Rams edged the Wildcats - but were in separate districts, able to go back and dominate their own class and make parallel runs into the regional playoffs. This year, their postseasons go through each other, with a third and potential fourth meeting looming. After an odd first meeting that saw the teams combine for an ugly 14-13 halftime score, Anders said he's expecting better basketball from both squads tonight.

"Both teams were kind of tight that first game," he said. "I don't think either team feels like they put the best foot forward that night. I know our chemistry has developed a lot, and everyone is more familiar with their roles. Our kids are looking forward to this."

[Last modified January 16, 2004, 01:33:00]

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