It’s been a while, but the East Lake girls basketball team is headed back to regionals.
And not only are the Eagles dancing for the first time since the 2011-12 season, they enter this week’s tournament as district champions. East Lake needed a pair of overtimes but managed to survive rival and back-to-back Class 8A District 10 champs Countryside, 61-56.
The all-North Pinellas league title game means both move on play in the region quarterfinals Feb. 14. If either local program intends to play past Valentine’s Day, they’ll need to survive a couple worthy challengers from Hillsborough County and District 8A-9.
As league champs, East Lake (20-6) gets the luxury of staying home and hosting Strawberry Crest. The Chargers enter with a 21-6 overall record and are back in the postseason after missing out the past two years. Strawberry Crest has notched some impressive victories throughout the season but are a much more manageable opponent than Tampa Bay Tech, the District 8A-9 champ.
The Titans (24-3) dismantled Strawberry Crest in the league title game, 62-16, and have won 11 straight. Tampa Bay Tech and Countryside are no strangers, either. Thursday night will mark the third year in a row the teams meet in the postseason. Two years ago it was Countryside picking up the first-round home win and last year the Titans prevailed in their gym during the region semifinals. That victory last season came during a run to the state final four.
The Cougars have been playing some of their best basketball of the year since winter break and they’ll need to play their best game of the season to knock off Tampa Bay Tech.
The winners of Thursday’s quarterfinal will meet in the region semis Tuesday, Feb. 19. An East Lake victory would provide for another home game against either Countryside or Tampa Bay Tech. Countryside would have to travel to either East Lake or Strawberry Crest.
Perhaps representing North Pinellas’ best shot at a deep tournament run is Clearwater.
The Tornadoes defended their District 7A-9 crown by beating Northeast, 56-50. Clearwater didn’t drop a single game against a league opponent this year and nearly pulled off an unbeaten regular season before falling 86-51 at Seffner Christian.
The Tornadoes fell one step short of the state final four last season and feel confident they can make it happen this time around. Their first-round opponent Thursday night will be Cape Coral. The Seahawks are 20-8 overall and have held opponents to 30 points a night. Clearwater is not a team nor an offense that gets shut down like that. If Cape Coral isn’t able to keep Clearwater in check, it may be the Seahawks who struggle to put up points.
If Clearwater advances to the second round, it’ll face the winner of Punta Gorda Charlotte (19-6) and Northeast (17-10). The Vikings have to make the trip south Thursday, but are plenty capable of taking out the Tarpons and setting up a district final rematch with Clearwater. All three head-to-head meetings between the Pinellas County schools were decided by fewer than 10 points, including an early season overtime contest.
If the Pinellas County rematch comes to fruition, Clearwater will get to host next Tuesday’s region semifinal. The Tornadoes will have to travel to Charlotte if the Tarpons take out Northeast.