If you’ve never seen the Tampa Bay Rebels, a semipro basketball team that plays its home games at Freedom High School in New Tampa, you might wonder if they’re any good. Can a local team really play entertaining basketball at a high level?
According to team founder and head coach Fernando Rojas, you’d be pleasantly surprised.
“My opinion is this: We play the highest level of basketball in the Bay area,” he said. “We have had players from the NBA’s Developmental League, players that played on NCAA championship teams, and many players with experience in European basketball. This combination of skill and maturity elevates the game higher than any college level.”
If Rojas sounds confident in his team, it’s because they have the history to back it up. Playing in the Florida Basketball Association, the team went 11-1 last year before dismantling the Heartland Prowl in the league’s championship game. And in 2013, they followed it up with a 10-2 regular season and another trip to the championship game.
This year, the Rebels came within a basket of back-to-back titles, losing 111-109 to that same Heartland Prowl club they defeated the year before.
According to Rojas, building a winner in such a short time — the club started operations in 2011 — is no accident. He follows a corporate philosophy, which involves individual responsibility and goal setting, and he wants everyone onboard.
That includes staff as well as players. Rojas’ director of scouting, Andrew Phillips, has been onboard since before the Rebels existed. Phillips was also involved with the Tampa Bay Sharks, a touring team Rojas founded before the Rebels, and he believes the Rebels’ success begins with its founder.
“I think a lot of it just has to do with leadership and the vision that Fernando has put into place,” Phillips said. “From an organizational standpoint, we try to have clear goals and objectives, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to meet most of those.”
Those goals include finding talent and executing on the court, but it doesn’t stop there. The Rebels stay involved in the community, Rojas said, and he believes it’s important for a local team to partner with local charities.
“We all live in the same community: Players, fans and coaches,” he said. “It just makes sense to participate and make the lives of others better.”
The Rebels already have supported groups like Boys & Girls Club and Habitat for Humanity, and will be involved with the Police Athletic League next season. Rojas said he hopes to work with others in the future as well.
The Rebels play their games at Freedom, but that’s not the only connection to the school. Rojas is in his fourth year as a volunteer assistant coach for the school’s varsity team, and he enjoys giving his student-athletes a chance to connect with veterans who have attained success at the collegiate and professional level.
“Bringing my semipro team to Freedom gives the young players an opportunity to see players who attended renowned college programs and follow their dreams,” Rojas said.
Even though the team’s season ended last month, the Rebels aren’t the kind of franchise to sit idle. Tryouts are scheduled for next March, and Rojas is looking into taking the team abroad to face some foreign competition.
And Phillips already is looking at improving the roster for next season with a focus on size at the power forward and center positions. He hopes to add players who will provide depth, and challenge existing team members for expanded playing time.
As part of his scouting, Phillips looks at local colleges and leagues for athletes who want to continue playing and have the skills to compete at the level the Rebels demand, which ensures that the team retains its local roots.
But regardless of the names on next year’s roster, Phillips has confidence in the team because he has confidence in the man guiding them.
“We know what we can do, we know what the goals are, and that they can be met,” Phillips said. “And there’s a willingness on (Rojas’) end to put in the time to get it done.”
For more information on the Rebels, visit www.tampabayrebels.com.