Practices and games have piled up in the first four years at Strawberry Crest High, and now the Chargers boys basketball team finally looks ready to take a leap into the deeper pools of the playoffs.
"I think we've turned a corner," said senior guard Karel Hamilton, who has played a significant role for the Chargers the past three years. "I'd say our experience of playing together is ready to pay off."
One of the most encouraging events occurred over the summer, when Strawberry Crest played in a Fort Myers tournament against some of the state's most talented teams. Out of a field of more than 20, the Chargers finished fourth, and from that finish earned invitations to two significant December holiday tournaments including the Bright House Holiday Tournament in Clearwater this weekend, and the Adidas Slam in Miami next weekend.
"These are two of the best tournaments we've ever played in, and I believe the experience is only going to make us better," Strawberry Crest coach Andre Lewis said.
"These are the type of tournaments we need to play to prepare for a run in the playoffs."
Last season, Strawberry Crest ended its season with a 17-11 record and a loss to Sickles in the district final, followed by a close first-round loss of the regional tournament to Palmetto.
From that team, the most significant personnel loss was guard Brandon Channer, who led the team with an average of 17.7 points a game.
The good news for the Chargers is that the team returned senior guards Devin Diggs and Karel Hamilton and juniors Dominick Trigg and Malik Channer, Brandon's brother. Through the first three weeks of this season, Malik Channer led the team with an average of 18.4 points a game, followed by Diggs, who was averaging 17.8 points and nine rebounds a game. Trigg and Hamilton, meantime, have provided steady leadership along with eight and six points a game, respectively.
Perhaps the most significant proof of the Chargers' bar getting raised this season came on Dec. 4, when the team defeated district rival Sickles, 61-49.
"That victory gave us a lot of confidence," Lewis said. "It was such a boost to beat a quality team like that."
Moving forward, the immediate goal for Lewis is to win 20 or more games and go deep into the playoffs. Beyond that, the goal is to make Strawberry Crest an annual threat to win state titles, which Lewis, 38, did all four years he played for Westover High in Georgia.
"I know what it takes and I know how much that experience means to me," said Lewis, who went on to play at Western Kentucky and Southeastern Louisiana and then professionally in Europe. "I feel it's time for me to give something back. I plan to be here for a while and give it everything I have.
"I think we can do something special here."