By Kyle LoJacono
The Wiregrass Ranch boys basketball team had a lot of questions entering this season.
The Bulls (17-10) lost seven seniors, including four starters, from last year’s squad that went 22-8 en route to the program’s first district championship and playoff berth.
The players have changed, but the results were similar this year. Wiregrass Ranch defeated Steinbrenner 85-75 in the Class 7A-District 9 semifinals on Feb. 8, clinching a postseason spot.
“It was the best feeling,” said junior forward Rico Kerney, the Bulls only returning starter. He then added, “This shows coach (Jeremy) Calzone is a great coach. We all wanted to win for him and each other.”
Calzone, the only coach in the program’s six-year history, wasn’t nervous about being the only Pasco County team among four Hillsborough squads in 7A-9.
“We’ve been playing Hillsborough schools since we opened,” Calzone said. “What I was worried about was all the new guys being nervous, and they haven’t.”
The Bulls weren’t just moving up junior varsity players and converting guys off the bench into starters this year. They also had to work in two transfers; guards Christian Parra and Dimarco Burgess who came from Wesley Chapel and Freedom, respectively. The squad lost three of its first four games while allowing almost 92 points per contest.
“We were a little shaky at the beginning,” Burgess said. “We practice every day, we don’t take days off, and we’ve also done a lot of team bonding. We’ve been together every day since August, so we’re doing so much better.”
Wiregrass Ranch came up short of consecutive district titles, falling to tournament host Chamberlain 80-65 on Feb. 10. Parra scored 17 against the Chiefs (16-7), while Burgess added nine. Kerney posted 10 points and 10 rebounds.
In the semis, Wiregrass Ranch jumped out early on Steinbrenner (11-10) with a 10-3 lead midway through the first quarter, but the Warriors stormed back to tie it at 14 entering the second thanks to three 3-pointers by Isaiah Goncalves.
Kerney heated up in the second, pouring in 14 of his game-high 32 points after being held off the scoreboard in the opening period.
“I have a (right) ankle sprain and I was thinking about it the whole first quarter,” Kerney said. “My teammates and coach Calzone told me to just block it out. … It hurt, but it was more I was thinking about it.”
The Bulls went into halftime leading 39-29, but the Warriors weren’t done. Steinbrenner scored 16 of the of the first 22 points coming out of the locker room, tying the game at 45 in less than 4 minutes.
Wiregrass Ranch trailed 63-59 minutes into the fourth when Calzone changed the defense from a 1-3-1 zone to 2-3 to get more bodies attacking the offensive glass to negate the Warriors’ height advantage.
“Their coach (Steve Williams) did some things in the second half that gave us trouble,” Calzone said. “We’re always going to be out-sized, so we just challenge our big guys to do the best they can rebounding.”
Burgess, the shortest Bulls player at 5-foot-9, scored six of his 10 points in the fourth while picking up steals on back-to-back possessions. He also pulled down a critical rebound setting up Larrentz Manora for two of his 22 points to give the Bulls a 75-71 lead they never relinquished.
“He might be the smallest guy, but he has the biggest heart,” Calzone said.
Burgess and Kerney each had seven steals. Kerney also added 14 rebounds.
Goncalves led Steinbrenner with 24 points including six 3-pointers. Joey Maloney scored 19, while Ke’Shawn Ingram and Drake Wagner added 14 and 11, respectively.