LAKEWOOD RANCH — Samantha Guadalupe didn’t know what to expect when she walked onto the court at Lakewood Ranch for the first time last season.
After spending two years playing point guard for Braden River, Guadalupe moved across town and to the Pirates’ East County rival. Guadalupe spent much of last season trying to learn the Lady Mustangs system while adjusting to her new teammates.
One year later, Guadalupe is one of six seniors who will lead Lakewood back from last season’s disappointing 10-15 finish. Last season didn’t end the way the Lakewood had hoped, as the Lady Mustangs, who only had seven players on their roster, dropped several games they could have won.
But with a number of returning starters from last season’s squad, including four players who put up double figures in every game last season, coach Tina Hadley has high expectations for her team this season.
“I expect for my team to play hard and give 100% effort every game,” Hadley said. “I think we’re going to be very competitive in the district this year. We just have to play as a team, played disciplined basketball, and be fundamentally sound.”
The Lady Mustangs tipped off their season Nov. 17 at Bradenton Christian School. Lakewood, which moved down to Class 4A, will begin its district season Dec. 14 at Palmetto.
Lakewood will face an entirely new district this season. St. Pete Lakewood should prove to be the toughest test for the Lady Mustangs; the Lady Spartans have reached the regional tournament three of the last four years.
Additionally, Lakewood will be eager to square off against archrival Braden River, and perhaps nobody is looking forward to the Jan. 4 contest more than Guadalupe.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Guadalupe said. “Just having been there and having ran through their program and now playing against girls I used to play with — I’m excited.”
Across the gym, the Lakewood boys hope this year’s record matches its level of talent.
Last year, the Mustangs didn’t perform quite as well as head coach Chris Kawcak had hoped.
“We underachieved a little bit,” Kawcak said. “We had better talent than our record showed, but the players were still trying to get my system down and understand what it takes to compete every day.”
With a number of returning starters back this season, including Danny Zarrella, Jake Carlton, Colin Snowball and Jordan Baker, the Mustangs are poised for greatness.
“We have very high expectations this year,” Snowball said. “We’ve been working hard, and hopefully, we’ll be able to do something big this year.”
But the road won’t be easy for the Mustangs, who face a new district this season. Lakewood will face a number of tests throughout the district season, including Braden River, Osceola and St. Pete Lakewood, which advanced to the state championship game two of the last three years.
“It’s fun to play new people, but once you go north of the river, basketball is pretty good,” Kawcak said.
The Mustangs will host a Pre Season Classic Tournament today and tomorrow before tipping off their regular season Nov. 24 against Oldsmar Christian.
Last season was one of firsts for senior point guard Andrew Pesognelli and the rest of the Braden River boys.
It was the first season the Pirates recorded a winning record; and it was the first time Braden River had won a district tournament game.
“We played a lot better than we expected coming in,” Pesognelli said.
Now with their first winning season under their belts, the Pirates have their sights set on new challenges, including a district championship.
“We want to do a lot better than we did last year,” Pesognelli said. “We’re a blue collar team,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of star players, but if we work together and pass the ball around then we’ll be successful.”
The Pirates return several starters from last season’s squad, including Pesognelli and leading scorers Casey Bobelis and Kareem Jackson.
Braden River also is expecting to face stiff competition from St. Pete Lakewood, Osceola and Dixie Hollins. But rather than looking too far ahead, the Pirates are focused on growing as a team and progressing throughout the season.
“I’m looking forward to the season,” Nesser said. “We finished 15-9 last year, and this year, we want to grow and get better.”
The Pirates will compete in the Coach David Preseason Classic Nov. 21 before tipping off their season at home Dec. 2 against Sarasota.
Across the court, the Braden River High girls basketball team has a completely new look this season — from its starting lineup to its head coach.
Former Out-of-Door Academy girls basketball coach Carl Williams will be patrolling the Lady Pirates bench this season. Williams assumed his new position over the summer. Williams initially planned to take a hiatus from coaching, but when a head coaching position opened at Braden River, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Over the summer, the Lady Pirates developed a team statement — a hardhat commitment — which Williams hopes will continue to motivate his players throughout the season.
After losing their top three players to graduation and four projected starters from this year’s lineup who chose not to play, Williams has had to reshuffle his roster, which features one starter from last season’s squad.
“We don’t have any all-star players, but we’re going to work hard,” Williams said. “Our goal is to outwork anyone we play. We’ll never gauge victory based on the score because that’s not what it’s about.”
Braden River got its first taste of competition this season in preseason action against Booker Nov. 10. The Lady Pirates defeated the Lady Tornadoes 43-35. Braden River tipped off its regular season Nov. 17 at Palmetto — the first hurdle in the Lady Pirates quest for a district title.
“This year I plan for us to go very far,” senior LaDon Ward said. “I think coach Williams is going to take Braden River basketball to a new level; and I really believe we can overcome any type of obstacle as long as we work together as a team.”
Last season, The Out-of-Door Academy girls basketball team had one of its best seasons in recent years, advancing to the district semifinals.
The Lady Thunder enter their 2009 campaign full of expectations, having only lost one player from last season’s squad.
“I think we have a lot of promise this year, and I want us to go as far as we can,” senior Chelsea Firth said. “If we really start to show our skills and polish everything off … we’ll do well.”
Looking to help the Lady Thunder improve their fundamentals this season will be new head coach Amy Brush. Prior to coming to ODA, Brush served as the head coach at Braden River, where she built the program from the ground up.
“She’s a fun-yet-serious and easygoing coach,” Firth said. “She brings a whole new aspect to the team. She’s really focused on us getting along as a team.”
This season, Brush will lead ODA into unfamiliar territory as the Lady Thunder will now compete in Class 2A. Joining ODA in Class 2A-District 11 will be Admiral Farragut, Northside Christian, Shorecrest Prep and crosstown rival Saint Stephen’s.
The Lady Thunder will tip off their 2009 season at home Nov. 23 against Southwest Florida Christian Academy.
The ODA boys also have high expectations this season after saying goodbye to district foes Sarasota Christian and Bradenton Christian.
After finishing 11-10 and third in the district last season, the Thunder move up to Class 2A, where the road to a district championship won’t be nearly as daunting.
“We’ll be able to hopefully compete for a district championship,” Peters said. “We’re an experienced group, and the kids have put quite a bit of time into it between the end of last season and this year.”
The Thunder return five starters this season, including point guard Steve LaFrance. However, the team remains without some of its starting players, including senior Jamie Onufrak, who still are playing football.
“We’re going to be very shorthanded until (football is over), but we prepared for that,” Peters said.
ODA will tip off its 2009 season Nov. 23 at home against Southwest Florida Christian Academy. But although ODA’s district competition could prove to be lighter than in years past, the Thunder will still face several tests throughout the season with games against Cardinal Mooney, Bradenton Christian and Lakewood Ranch slated for the first month of the season.
“I’m looking forward to this season,” LaFrance said. “I’m going to miss having another opportunity to play Sarasota Christian and Bradenton Christian (for the district), but now we have new opportunities and new teams to play.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].