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Talent fuels county’s prep hoops revival

Perhaps the only thing more exciting than the boys basketball resurgence saturating Manatee County is how it has happened.

Where’s the star? The dominating player? The bona-fide, never-let-this-guy-beat-us force of nature that takes over a game the minute an opponent sees him on film?

He’s not here this year. Gone.

Instead, he’s been replaced by a bunch of superstar-free teams that are shaping this winter into the most promising one we’ve seen in years.

Make no mistake — there’s talent here. Lots of it. Anyone who’s made their way into a gym this season — and if you haven’t, you should, because prep sports is an affordable ticket that needs your dough now more than ever — can attest to the wide variety of quality players squeaking their way down the floors.

But there’s no immovable object or unstoppable force. And that’s great.

Try finding one on Manatee’s roster. Instead, the Hurricanes boast a slick point guard in Ace Sanders, an ever-improving inside guy in Zach Beeker and flat-out players in Brice Smith and Quenton Bundrage, the latter of whom dunked twice during Monday’s win over Palmetto.

Bradenton Christian has ridden its share of big men to a trio of Class 1A final four appearances, but this winter fields a roster that is the smallest in coach David Magley’s tenure.

No matter. Fast guards Jordan and Jonathan Negrin, teamed with JoJo Wood’s freaky-accurate shooting and Spence Purnell and Michael Frey’s ability to work the paint well helped the Panthers win their holiday tournament for the second year in a row.

The tourney’s second-place team? Palmetto, off to a solid start thanks to Reggie Baity’s parabolic 3-point shot and Trevontae Rhodes’ ability to take a game on his shoulders, as well as point guard Donald Campbell.

Let us not forget Braden River, comprised of a big man (Casey Bobelis) and all-around athletes such as Rueben Roderick and Willie McNeal.

The returns have been stellar. Manatee is in the running for a choice seed in the Class 5A-District 12 tournament; BCS hasn’t lost to a local opponent this season; Palmetto has built on the late momentum that carried the Tigers into last year’s regional playoffs; and Braden River set a program record for wins before the calendar flipped to 2009.

It’s fun to watch one guy dominate a basketball game, just as it’s fun to watch a pitcher strike out 20 and a quarterback disassemble a defense.

But it’s just as fun to see five guys working together, knowing that if you remove one piece from the machine, things won’t work as smoothly.

Time will tell if these formulas translate into postseason success, if the lack of a 30-point scorer or a 25-20 per-night-guy keeps a team from playing deep into the winter.

For now, however, the ride has been enjoyable. Boys basketball is starting to matter again in Manatee County, thanks to a cast of supporting players who are ready to take the lead role whenever they need to.