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5 players make national event


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001

Chris Jackson fully expects to have a college scholarship by the time the USA Junior National Championship Sports Festival rolls around.

But that hasn't stopped the Lecanto senior from seizing a golden opportunity to showcase and improve his solid skills.

Jackson is among fivecounty basketball players who have qualified for the July tournament as a member of Team Florida. He will be joined by fellow Panthers Erin Bailey and Landon Baize and Crystal River's Cassandra Vega and Jennifer McRae.

"It's not the exposure I'm worried about," said Jackson, who led Lecanto with an average of 15 points and 10 rebounds per game this season and is considering offers from Pasco/Hernando Junior College and Florida College, among others.

"I just want to be able to see that kind of competition," he said. "I've shown what I can do in the county and the area. Now I'll see what I can do against kids from other parts of the country."

Jackson, Bailey, Baize, Vega and McRae earned their way by virtue of their respective performances in a qualifying event March 4 at the University of Central Florida. Each one was selected from a pool that included 100 players from around the state.

Their efforts have earned them a trip to the national festival in Atlanta. They will compete in a weeklong tournament that features similar teams from 41 different states. The boys tourney is scheduled for July 9-15, and the girls event is July 23-29.

For each, the chance means different things.

For seniors Jackson and Bailey, it is an opportunity to display their skills one more time before going to college. For younger players Vega, McRae and Baise, who was on the junior varsity last season, it offers the chance to gain valuable preparation for next year.

"Any time you play against better competition and get exposed to different coaches and different people, it's going to be a good thing," said Crystal River girls coach Norris Lightsey, who saw such results when former players Monique Bunch, Missy Calder and Lindsey Reid were involved in a similar competition in Europe.

"Just the experience of going to Atlanta, playing on a college court, seeing different coaches and different perspectives is positive. I can say something 300 times and it will never click. But another guy can say it once and it just clicks. It should be a great learning experience for them."

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