Southeast will begin defense of its Class 5A state title this week when girls district tournament play begins.
Despite an impressive 21-4 record, the Seminoles have a very different look from last year. They lost four starters who were four-year varsity players and some significant height off the state championship squad.
Southeast is the top seed in the Class 5A-District 10 tournament, but nothing is certain for this team. Their struggles at the free-throw line, where they are shooting 50 percent for the season, make them vulnerable to any team that wants to play the foul game. That cost them potential victories over Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota.
But the Noles have speed, and they like to use it on defense, where they are holding opponents to an average of 40 points per game. They have balanced scoring in Breyonna Reed (13.4 points per game), Sophie Giardina (11.6 ppg), Shauntavia Green (9.9 ppg) and sophomore Faith Mays (9.3 ppg). The top rebounders are Marline Valcin (9.8 rpg) and Mays (5.7 rpg).
The biggest threat to Southeast is from Bayshore and perennial nemesis St. Petersburg Lakewood, the second seed. Those two will square off in a semifinal at Lakewood with the winner expected to be at top seed Southeast on Friday night for the final.
Bayshore (17-6) is led by senior Joy Norman, who tops in the Bruins in scoring (15.9 ppg) and rebounding (9.6 rpg). The Bruins split their two games with Lakewood (13-8), winning the second meeting in St. Petersburg 47-44, and played Southeast close dropping a 43-40 contest in their last meeting.
Class 7A-District 10
This tournament could be called the battle of the sophomore giants with Lakewood Ranch's 6-foot-2 LaDazhia Wililams and 6-3 Madison Pack of Sarasota.
It has been a great season for Lakewood Ranch (17-8), except the second-seeded Mustangs have been unable to defeat top-seeded Sarasota (23-3), a savvy, veteran squad that has good height and a premier player in Camille Giardina (16.8 ppg). Pack (10.5 ppg/7.5 rpg) and 3-point shooter Zaharia Grable are key contributors.
Lakewood Ranch finished 6-2 in district play with both losses to the Sailors, who went undefeated in eight district games. The Mustangs revolve around Williams (20.8 ppg/10.7 rpg), their only double figure scorer. But she has a good supporting cast in Kailyn Scully (9.2 ppg), Aleah Robinson (8 ppg/6.8 rpg) and Elise Spiller (7.9 ppg).
Lakewood Ranch lost 42-36 and 46-35 to Sarasota. Williams combined for 29 points and 20 rebounds in those games, compared to Pack's 17 points and nine rebounds. The difference was Giardina, who had 22 points in the second game.
Palmetto has lost twice to Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota, with victories over struggling Braden River. The third-seeded Tigers are going to find it extremely hard to extend their season beyond their expected semifinal round game at Sarasota.
Senior Jermisha Collins, who has scored more than 2,000 career points, provides the bulk of the offense and playmaking. Palmetto will need a big performances from inside threats Taylor Rozier and Connor Rozier to make it a game.
Class 3A-District 10
Cardinal Mooney won all six of its district games en route to a 12-7 overall record to earn the top seed. The Cougars should have no problem with host Saint Stephen's in a district semifinal and then take on the winner of Out-Of-Door-Academy and Bradenton Christian.
Cardinal Mooney rests a lot of its hopes on junior center Jacqueline Kull (15.5 ppg/8.1rpg) and guard Emily Walser (11.2 ppg/5 rpg), who leads the team in the steals.
ODA (12-5) has defeated Bradenton Christian in two close games, 49-44 and 37-30. Lisa Hoffman leads The Thunder in scoring and on the boards, and Jenna Bloch is a nice complement.
Senior Katie Swaagman is the Panthers' only double-digit scorer (12.9 ppg). Freshman Amy Van Ryn is second in scoring (7.1 ppg) and tops Bradenton Christian on the boards (6.8 rpg).
Class 8A-District 8
Manatee (7-15) is trying to rebuild its program under first-year head coach Betty Tracy and doesn't figure to get by its first-round game at top-seeded Riverview (17-8), which is allowing 39.1 points per game.
Jada Guion leads the Hurricanes in scoring, Jacqui Amer is the top rebounder, O'Neesha Shaw has been the defensive standout, and freshman Jada Watson shows promise.