Nease and Middleburg played a best-of-five girls basketball series last season that had more than its share of championship moments, dramatic endings and beautiful basketball.
But when the Panthers eliminated the Broncos from last year’s regional playoffs, there was a sense that playing five times in one season was too much.
For that reason and others the St. Johns River Athletic Conference reconsidered how it confirmed champions. This school year, champions in volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball are crowned through an eight-team tournament.
It’s a change from a format that paired teams from the eastern side of the conference against those in the western half based on records and common opponents.
The girls basketball tournament begins today with two games at St. Augustine High and two more at Middleburg.
Fleming Island (19-3) is the top-seed by virtue of the Golden Eagles’ 64-62 buzzer-beating win over Nease on Nov. 22. The Panthers (17-3) are the second seed and will face Menendez at 6 p.m. at St. Augustine.
“The best team is going to win,” said Nease coach Sherri Anthony. “It’s better than East vs. West and you play one game to decide who won.”
Anthony says that as the coach who won the tournament last year. Nease beat Middleburg 47-45 in overtime in the third of their five contests. This year, the Panthers may be even better.
“Everyone is scoring. Everyone is playing defense. Everyone is sharing the ball,” Anthony said. “We didn’t have that in the last few years because we didn’t have the talent level.”
Nease has obliterated most of its opponents since dropping its first two games of the season.
Menendez is seeded seventh, but the Falcons beat third-seeded Bartram Trail in November. St. Augustine will host the Bears at 7:30 tonight. The Jackets lost to Bartram 62-61 on Dec. 8 due to a missed layup with less than five seconds remaining.
With so many teams in the conference having played competitive games against each other, Menendez coach Kerri Robison Gallagher said the tournament will be a challenge for all involved. And that is why Gallagher, Anthony and St. Augustine coach Eric Hancock said the champion will earn the title.
St. Augustine (12-6) has won six of its last eight, with losses to Nease and Middleburg.
The Yellow Jackets won the Jarvis Williams Tournament last month in Palatka and will have their work cut out for them if they want to add a second trophy this season. Brianna Green, Kyra Stauble and Brooke Reed are the top scorers for an offense that averages 53.8 points per game.
“I like it. It will tell you who is really the best,” Hancock said of the new format. “It’s like a March Madness atmosphere. If you have an off game, and someone beats you in the regular season (you get another chance at them.)”