A quirk in the change as to how Sunshine Athletic Conference standings are determined has left the battle for the conference crown even more wide open for the next month.
Schedule reductions forced county coaches to reduce the conference season from 16 games, two against each conference opponent, to 12, with teams playing opponents from the opposite side of the county only once.
The catch is that if an eastside school plays a westside school twice, only the second meeting counts toward the conference standings, so even though Ridgewood lost to Wesley Chapel last month and the Wildcats lost to Mitchell last week, both Wesley Chapel and Ridgewood enter tonight's showdown undefeated in the SAC standings.
Don't count out Pasco, which has a 6-1 conference mark, the lone blemish because its early-season loss to Wesley Chapel does count toward the SAC standings. If Pasco can sweep its second games against the Wildcats and Rams, the Pirates could have at least a share of the conference crown within their reach.
EVERY WIN COUNTS: Land O'Lakes beat Mitchell in their first meeting, so the Gators can lock up an automatic playoff berth with a win against the Mustangs in their rematch Feb. 6.
If Mitchell were to even the series, however, the district's top seed and an automatic regional playoff berth likely would be decided by a tiebreaker, which probably will be overall record.
That puts pressure on every game for both Mitchell (8-5) and, especially, Land O'Lakes (8-6). The Mustangs have a tough run next week with nondistrict games against Ridgewood, East Lake and Jesuit, but both teams can treat each game as one with an impact on the district tournament.
"No offense to my buddy (River Ridge coach) Gary Allen, but it's a two-team race," Land O'Lakes coach Dave Puhalski said. "It's us and Mitchell and it's pretty close, so we have to try to win as many games as we can."
CHANGE FOR BUCS: Gulf coach Steve Feldman, hoping to find the right combination of young players, said Thursday he's bringing up three freshmen from his junior varsity with the hopes of sparking his 5-8 team.
Guard Kenny Fletcher, wing man Corey Paterson and post player Alton Voss will join classmate David Frazier, who has starred as a freshman, leading the team in rebounds and ranking second in scoring. Those three helped the JV team to a 6-2 record, including handing Wesley Chapel's JV its first loss of the season.
"Some of the guys are a collection of loose parts, so I'm going to move some guys up and down," Feldman said. "Sometimes the round peg just doesn't fit in the square hole you have."
Feldman said his team's record is about where he thought it would be, but he has been frustrated to see his team challenge opponents for three quarters, only to fade down the stretch. A recent loss to Land O'Lakes typified the late dropoff, as Gulf entered the fourth quarter trailing by one only to lose by 17.
"Teams will just tighten their belt an extra notch and we can't do with them," he said. "I'm not as sure it's about conditioning as it is finding the mental toughness to get over those humps. To play a team tough until the fourth quarter, that's probably the most disappointing part of it right now."
PARTING SHOTS: Pasco, often seen as a two-star team because of Johnny Peyton and Deran Burns, has gotten strong play from senior Jimmy Lyman, including a 30-point outburst against Hudson on Wednesday night. "If he continues to play like he's playing, we can do a lot of good things," coach Poncho Broner said. ... Mitchell standout D.J. Crosby, just a sophomore, ranks among the county's top seven in scoring, assists, steals and free-throw percentage. His 81 percent clip puts him behind only teammate Jeremy Hopper, leading the county at 83 percent.