We continue our regional coverage with a look at North Florida, which we consider from Tallahassee east to Jacksonville and south to Ocala.
TOP FIVE “BIG” SCHOOLS (CLASS 7A thru 5A)
Lecanto (Class 5A, Region 2, District 5): The Panthers reached the regional round last year and return nearly every player of importance. Lecanto is led by a pair of dynamic sophomores in the backcourt. J.T. Lipton, 5’10, led the team in scoring and assists at 19.5 and 5.4 respectively per game. Braylon Moore wasn’t far behind at 16.5 points a contest. They complement each other well with Tipton being an accurate perimeter shooter and Moore’s ability to slash and finish at the basket. It is still a young group with only two seniors expected to be on the squad. The Panthers will be more than dangerous should one or more players find their groove when it comes to scoring.
Palm Coast Matanzas (Class 6A, Region 2, District 5): We are taking a “flyer” on the Pirates based on the play and reputation of some of their young players. The team didn’t reach regional play last season but with 6’8 sophomore Alexander Davis averaging a double/double in the eight games he played last year and the talent of 6’6 freshman Henry Robinson, the size and talent is there to compete night in and night out. Tarik Shakur, a 6’0 senior, tossed in double-figures on a nightly basis last season and it is hoped his scoring can balance the floor for Davis and Robinson
Orange Park Oakleaf (Class 6A, Region 1, District 3): The Knights reached the region semis last year and while they lost several contributing seniors from that team, Oakleaf was quite impressive in their play at the FABC Team Camp in June. Aaron Rivers, a 5’9 senior returns and was last year’s leading scorer. This is a case where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The Knights are athletic, deep, and committed at the defensive end. They will be a tough out for anyone this season.
Ponte Vedra (Class 6A, Region 1, District 3): The Sharks have been to the 6A final each of the last two years, only to fall short. This season could be different. Sharpshooting senior Sam Ritchie returns. The 6’2 guard was impressive this spring and summer with his ability to manufacture and make shots on either side of the three-point arc. A pair of sophomores, 6’8 Trace Westerkamp and 6’4 Maddox Palmer will bring much needed fire power to replace players that helped the team to two title games. Westerkamp has inside/outside skills and will protect the rim. Palmer is an uncanny passer and a good finisher in transition and when driving to the rim. This is a squad where each player knows and understands his role, playing it to the best of his ability.
Jacksonville Riverside (Class 5A, Region 1, District 3): The Generals were looking for big things last season but lost a heart-breaking three-point slugfest on the road in the region semis. There are still quality players in the program, most notably 6’5 junior Tae’shaun Gelsey and 6’7 senior Jayquan Wells. Gelsey’s future may be in football but he is a also a quality hooper. He has a solid perimeter shot and can take defenders of all sizes off the bounce. Wells is a quick leaper that grabs boards and rejects shots in large quantities. He has a good touch around the rim and is quick to clean up missed shots by teammates. Senior Darren Smith and junior Jesus Rice will called upon to provide support at both ends of the floor.
TOP FIVE “SMALL” SCHOOLS (CLASS 4A thru 1A)
Jacksonville North Florida Educational Institute (Class 2A, Region 1, District 2): A Class 2A power, the Fighting Eagles reached the Final Four last season and seemingly has a never-ending pipeline of players. We came away very impressed with the play of 6’6 junior Elijah Clinton at the Fall Festival. He demonstrated perimeter shooting range to the arc, an ability to create and knock down mid-range jump shots and score with authority in transition. The team has some size as well in 6’10 senior Josh Johnson, 6’9 senior Odaine Clahar, and 6’10 sophomore Nigel Challenge. Each has work to do in terms of strength and skill development but the old adage “you can’t teach size” still applies.
Jacksonville Providence (Class 3A, Region 1, District 3): The Stallions have long been one of the top programs in the North Florida area as well as the state overall. Chris Arias, a 6’6 senior and Jacksonville commit, is a bucket getter, pure and simple. Whether shooting with range from the perimeter or driving hard to the bucket, Arias is tough for a defense to contain. Brady Patterson, a 5’10 senior, plays with a chip on his shoulder, takes care of the ball while running the offense, and shoots it well from the arc. Key to Providence’s success this coming season will be the effectiveness of its role players. Guys like Caleb McAbee, a 5’10 senior, Abdul Mansaray, a 6’4 senior, 6’4 senior David Fonville and 6’6 freshman Will Rydzewski will all need to maximize their abilities to get Providence to Lakeland.
Jacksonville Ribault (Class 4A, Region 1, District 3): The Trojans reached the 4A Final Four last season and with the return of 6’0 senior and Florida Times Union Player of the Year Caleb Williams, it won’t surprise if they return for another crack at it. While there isn’t a lot of size on the roster, there is a lot of athleticism, depth, and tenacity on the defensive end. It may not be a “vintage” team as back in the Bernard Wilkes era, but it certainly has potential.
The Villages Charter (Class 4A, Region 2, District 6): Get them now because The Buffaloes are young but wildly talented. The one senior of note is 6’2 Ben Koubek who should get an opportunity to play somewhere at the next level. A gritty, heady player with a reliable outside shot, Koubek can also drive the ball and score through contact. Chris Washington, a 6’7 sophomore, is bursting with potential. Long and bouncy, he is quick to rebounds, sprints the floor, and finishes well above the rim. He has range on his perimeter shot and it continues to improve as a weapon. Washington is also an effective shot blocker for his size. Brisun Hammermeister, a 6’5 sophomore, is a solid outside shooter, plays with a chip on his shoulder, and isn’t afraid to play physically at either end of the court. A good athlete that handles the ball well, Hammermeister can play multiple positions on the court. Jared Thompson, a 6’2 sophomore, plays either guard spot. He is quick to the cup and voraciously defends the basketball. A pair of freshmen may also play significant minutes. Freshman Aaron Britt is a 6’0 speedster that continuously looks to push the pace. Jomar Bernard, a 6’5 freshman, has a good mix of skills and athleticism to make a variety of basketball plays.
Williston (Class 1A, Region 4, District 7): Last year’s 1A champs have reloaded and look destined to repeat. Senior bookend forwards, 6’6 Javon Brown and Kyler Lamb, are athletic and skilled. If opponents key on one, the other will have a field day. Aramys Rodriguez, a 6’1 senior, is a pass-first but not pass-only point guard that will find ways to get everybody involved. Xzavion McCoy, a 5’10 senior, transfers in and will amp up the pace of play. This could be the first 1A team in recent memory that could hang (and possibly) win games against larger schools.
TOP FIVE PLAYERS
Chris Arias, Jacksonville Providence: The 6’5 senior had an excellent summer and has committed to Jacksonville University. Arias is tough to guard in ball-screen situations with his ability to knock down shots or find the open man. When playing off the ball, he moves well off screens and is always shot-ready.
C.J. Ingram, Hawthorne: A 6’5 junior, Ingram is a two-sport standout that will have a tough decision between football and basketball when it comes to college. He is a multi-dimensional and multi-positional athlete that will play any and all positions for Hawthorne. Ingram played well in the EYBL 16U Division with the Florida Rebels this past spring and summer.
Kyler Lamb, Williston: The 6’6 senior lefty is a tough cover. He has the shooting range to keep defenders honest and a quick first step should they play too close. Lamb rebounds well, runs the floor and finishes over the top of the defense.
Javon Brown, Williston: Maybe the only difference between Brown and teammate Lamb is that Brown is right-handed. He has the tools to be a grab-and-go rebounder, a shot blocker at this level, and has defensive versatility.
Caleb Williams, Jacksonville Ribault: A 6’0 senior, Williams led the team on a surprise run to Lakeland last season. He is equally adept and scoring and distributing. Williams is quick with the ball, penetrates the defense and makes good shot vs. pass decisions. He is a respectable perimeter shooter and determined defender.
#1 Senior: Chris Areas, Providence (see above)
#1 Junior: C.J. Ingram, Hawthorne (see above)
#1 Sophomore: Chris Washington, The Villages Charter: (see above)
#1 Freshman: Henry Robinson, Matanzas: Granted, we have not seen him play (yet) but by all accounts he is one of the better players in his class nationally. He has size, length, athleticism and a solid skill set.
Senior Sleeper: Andrew Powell, Gainesville Oak Hall: The 6’4 Powell might have been the best perimeter shooter we have seen all spring, summer, and fall. He is quick to get his feet set, has a rapid release and knows how to move without the ball and use screens to get open or create space. He is also a high-level student.