Below are five teams we’re watching closely this winter high school sports season:
1: Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH) Boys Soccer — Head coach David Wilson says that the 2017-18 team could potentially be the best he’s ever had. That’s saying a lot from a coach who brought his team to the state semifinals in 2015 and hasn’t lost a game against a Pasco County team in four years.
“When you have a strong and talented group of seniors that have played together for three years on varsity, there’s potential for great things,” Wilson said.
A trio of senior veterans coming off All-State seasons form the down-the-middle strength for the Bulls. Center back Jackson Trudel controls the game from the back line. Center-mid Royce Luedde is 6-foot-4 and controls the air, the middle of the field and is great on set pieces. Midfielder Ian Flores is one of the most highly-recruited players Wilson’s ever had, with 60 colleges having contacted him, including Rutgers Univ. in New Brunswick, NJ, which has offered him a scholarship.
The youngsters aren’t bad either – freshman Justin Amis and junior Rafael Silva scored three goals apiece in a 13-0 preseason win over Hernando, with sophomores Noah Leonard and Jake Bierhorst pitching in two goals each.
2: WRH Boys Basketball — The Bulls have had the unenviable situation to be mired in Class 8A, District 8, which is brutally tough, with the likes of perennial New Tampa powerhouses Freedom and Wharton, as well as defending state champion Sickles. If the Bulls continue to build on their 2016-17 arc, they might be ready to pull even with that triumvirate of top-tier teams.
“Eight seniors return for this year’s team,” says Bulls head coach Jeremy Calzone. “So, if there’s a year to do it, it’s this one. It’s the most experience we’ve ever had to start a season.”
Senior forwards Jayden Wilson (6’-9”) and Justin Rush (6’-6”) give the Bulls great size. Junior guard Elijah Howell is the team’s best shooter and leader on the floor. Senior guards Val Garcia and Jordan Miner also are veterans who have been on varsity since their freshman years.
3: Cypress Creek Middle High (CCH) Girls Weightlifting — New program starts from scratch, right? Not so much. Four-year Wesley Chapel High (WCH) girls weightlifting coach Tico Hernandez has 24 girls on the team to start the season.
Like their coach, sophomores Addison Metcalf and Megan Faysash, who is already emerging as the team leader, come over from WCH. Junior Neely Peterson didn’t lift in 2016-17, but is a fierce competitor, according to Hernandez. Freshman Emily Speck is the team’s spark plug and is working to perfect her skills and technique.
4: Wesley Chapel High (WCH) Girls Basketball — The team’s toughest opponent this year likely will be adversity.
Coming off their best record (15-9) since the 2009-10 season with everyone poised to return, the Wildcats lost their top returner to an ACL injury, and CCH’s opening just four miles away took some of WCH’s other key players.
“We lost 80 percent of our scoring from last year,” Livingston said. “We only return three kids total from last year’s varsity team.”
But the toughest adversity will come in the form of getting over the death of a family member. The Monday prior to tryouts, assistant coach Marcellus “Coach Shack” Shackelford was killed in a car accident.
Shackelford was the only assistant four-year head coach Peter Livingston ever had.
“There’s a lot of adversity we’re trying to overcome this year,” Livingston said. “We also want to celebrate him (Coach Shackelford) and try to get ready for the season.”
5: WCH Boys Basketball — Last season was a down year for the typically steady Wildcats boys basketball team. After a 21-8 season two years ago, WCH managed just a 9-17 record in 2016-17.
They should bounce back this season, as they get a shot in the arm from the school’s football team. Division I-A senior football recruits Chaz Neal (who is 6’-9”) and Isaiah Bolden will take to the hardwood for the ‘Cats in 2017-18.
Neal played in seven games for Armwood a year ago, averaging three rebounds.