As the Palmetto Panthers boys’ basketball team practiced on its new hardwood floor recently, coach Marcos Molina couldn’t help but think back to how last season ended.
An 11-game win streak, including a dominating run to the GMAC championship, came to a screeching halt with a 73-66 loss to Homestead in the first round of district tournament action.
A promising season over before they could blink.
“Crushing,” Molina said, shaking his head.
After nine months of reflection and waiting, a new season has begun for Palmetto, one with the same goals and expectations: Making it to state for the first time since 1980.
“I thought last year we hit a high in the GMAC,” Molina said. “I thought we were on our way to getting to where we wanted to go. ... It’s complacency, being able to build and not relax at all. Hopefully they learned their lesson that when you relax, somebody can beat you.”
Palmetto’s strength will come with its depth and experience. The Panthers will lean on forward senior Kentron Poitier, who is coming off a strong performance on the football field and was a first-team All-Dade county basketball player at SLAM Academy last year when he averaged 15 points, 9.4 rebounds and two blocks per game.
Power forward Alex Rodriguez, point guard Martin Mercedes, 6-7 center Josmel Martinez, shooting guard Jovan Debrito and Palmer Trinity transfer Gary Bess round out Palmetto’s expected top six heading into the season.
Jason Marshall, a sophomore who early on is ranked as a top cornerback prospect on the football field in the Class of 2021 by 247Sports, will also play a big role on the team once he’s caught up to speed.
“We share the basketball. We play together,” Molina said. “They like playing with each other, battling with each other.”
Their schedule is no joke, either.
In addition to playing in the competitive District 16-9A, Palmetto will face defending Class 4A state champion Westminster Academy on Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena as part of the Hoop Hall Invitational.
Palmetto will also take part in the Sunshine Series portion of the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, where the Panthers will face Class 8A’s Lakeland. Palmetto will also host the Jr. Orange Bowl Classic and travel to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl Classic from Jan. 1-6.
“This is a big-game team,” Molina said. “They get up for the big games, but they also have to understand that they have to get up every night. ... I think we have the guys this year who are mature enough to really handle that. They’re ready.”
Five more teams to watch
▪ Miami Christian: The Victors are going for a third consecutive state championship in Class 2A under coach Juan Cardona. Senior point guard Diego Rivera, coming off a year in which he averaged 14.5 points and 7.3 assists per game, leads a veteran squad that has at least a half-dozen college prospects on its roster.
▪ Doral Academy: The Firebirds are the defending Class 7A state champions but only return one starter from that lineup in senior guard Jonathan Nunez. How quickly newcomers Anthony Pellereno and Devin Carter blend in with the rest of the team will play a factor in Doral’s early success.
▪ South Miami: The Cobras finished 20-5 last season and made a run to the Class 9A regional finals. Point guard Toru Dean, a Barry University commit, will lead South Miami as it attempts another playoff run this year.
▪ Norland: The Vikings advanced to the Class 7A regional semifinals last season before being eliminated by eventual state champion Doral. Norland has to replace key starters in first-team All-County forward Omar Rolle and second-team All-County center Rece Wilkerson.
▪ North Miami: The Pioneers went 22-6 a season ago and reached the Class 9A regional semifinal and expect big things in their third season under coach Ray Benoit. Junior point guard Carlos Hart (18 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game last year) and senior wingman Richard Charles (13 points and 3.6 rebounds per game last year) lead a veteran squad into the 2018-19 season.