TAMPA — It’s fair to say duplicating last year’s Class 5A state title run would be a huge task for this year’s Jesuit basketball team.
Gone is the entire starting five from last year’s 31-1 team, four of whom are playing in college, and the team’s top two players off the bench. One of the state’s top recruits, Isaiah Omoregie, would have been Jesuit’s top returner, but he transferred to Oldsmar Christian.
Though 6-4, this year’s squad has shown signs of playing with greater intensity than last year’s championship team, coach Neal Goldman said.
“Everyone is playing new roles, and some are first-year varsity players,” Goldman said.
So far, the team’s top two scorers have been juniors Christian Whidden (17.7 ppg) and Daniel Darst (14.2), who were junior varsity players a year ago. Darst was moved up to varsity following the JV season and appeared in one game at the varsity level.
“He’s come out with a lot of confidence, and it’s nice to see his development,” Goldman said of Whidden. “Darst is our best overall player.”
Whidden and Darst led Jesuit’s JV team to an 18-3 record last season.
“I believe we have the best JV program in the city,” Goldman said. “And the seniors that are back, they didn’t play a lot, but they have experience.”
The Tigers lost to state-ranked Shorecrest Prep, Brooks-DeBartolo, Davenport Ridge and Haines City. The schedule doesn’t get easier, with IMG Bradenton tonight and a national tournament next week at the Father George National Jesuit Classic in Maryland.
“We have really been battle tested,” Goldman said. “But that’s how you get better. You want to peak by January.”
Dragons turning it around
Under second-year coach Eric Hayes, Jefferson is 10-2 overall and tied with Lennard for first place in Class 6A-District 9 at 8-1, becoming one of the county’s most surprising teams.
Last season, in Hayes’ first year, Jefferson finished 7-12 and lost in the first round of the district tournament.
“When I took over the program, there was a culture of defeat in the basketball program,” Hayes said.
Hayes has since changed the culture from a defeated one “to one that thinks they could win.”
The Dragons have three players averaging double-digit scoring: Vernon Jackson (14.3 points per game), Tamir Blackshear (12.3) and Shaquille Mandy (10.8).
Jefferson last reached the postseason in 2006 and has not won a state playoff game since 1974. But that could change this season.
“My players will tell you, I set my expectations high,” Hayes said. “As a team, I told them we have 33 games on the schedule, that includes district tournament and winning all the way to the state championship in Lakeland.”
City of Tampa Championship: Tonight: Jefferson-Plant, 3:30 p.m.; Tampa Catholic-Hillsborough, 5 p.m.; Robinson-Middleton, 6:30 p.m.; Blake-Tampa Prep, 8 p.m. Saturday: Semifinals 6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Monday: Championship 8 p.m.
Northeast Christmas Invitational Tournament: Thursday: Boca Ciega–Countryside, 5:30 p.m.; Wharton–Northeast, 7 p.m.; St. Petersburg High–Tampa Bay Tech, 8:30 p.m. Friday: Semifinals 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m. Saturday: Third place, 7 p.m.; Championship 8:30 p.m.