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Short in Stature, Alonso Hoopsters Grow in Respectability

When Alonso High School boys basketball coach Todd Price sees kids waiting for space on pick-up courts in the Westchase area, he gets encouraged. When Price notices heavy enrollment for youth basketball leagues at the YMCA, he smiles. Heck, if Price spots a young boy dribbling a basketball in the driveway, that’s a positive.

“If you’re building a program, you want a foundation of people who are interested in the sport,’’ Price said. “I think we have a great future here.’’

Three seasons ago, the Ravens won just two games all season. They didn’t get much respect.

Last season, however, the Ravens improved to 15-11, the school’s first winning record in boys basketball and hit stride with a seven-game winning streak at midseason. That included a 41-40 victory at Sickles on a buzzer-beating shot by Bassel Harfouch. Sickles had reached the Class 5A state-championship game in the prior season.

“We are really encouraged,’’ said Ravens junior guard Malachi Christopher, who was Alonso’s leading scorer last season at 14.9 points per game. “The way we finished last season, it just makes us hungry for more.’’

Alonso’s preseason practices are under way with the opening game set for Nov. 29 at home against Sickles.

“The way we keep it going is through a commitment to do all the little things that matter, doing them every single day,’’ said Price, who is entering his fifth season as Alonso’s head coach. “It’s about work ethic and establishing a culture of doing the right things, then having the kids buy into it.

“You can have one good year, but the way you build a program is to establish some consistency. The kids know exactly what is expected of them. They have been lifting weights, playing summer ball, really putting in a commitment. Pretty soon, when you have some success, other people take notice and want to be part of something like that.’’

During the 2008-09 season, when the Ravens managed just two victories, not many people believed in the future of Alonso basketball.

“It was very upsetting at the time,’’ Alonso senior Efren Urena said. “We were being laughed at. When you’re there, there’s really no place to go but up.’’

The Ravens won nine games the following season, then improved to respectability. Alonso hoped for a berth in the state playoffs, but fell to Wharton, 54-44, in the district tournament’s first round.

“Alonso is doing a nice job,’’ said Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli, a former University of South Florida guard, who has established Hillsborough County’s most consistently excellent boys basketball program. “Coach Price is building it the right way. I think they work very hard and that’s something you need.’’

Especially when your tallest player stands 6-foot-2.

“I’m 5-11 and I play the post, which means I’m constantly guarding guys that are much taller than me,’’ Alonso senior Wesley Norwood said. “But you know what? We’ve got a lot of heart. We’re willing to put in the work and do whatever we can to be a winning team. We don’t have any 6-foot-11 guys walking the halls here. What we do have is a bunch of guys who play together.’’

Price said he expects to build this season’s team around the outside shooting of Christopher and the scrappy play of Urena. Greg Robinson, a 6-foot junior swingman, shows signs of becoming the team’s most improved player. Senior point guard Marcus Coffey and senior forward Jace Lawrence will also hold key roles.

“Sometimes, you have to take a few steps backward before you go forward,’’ Price said. “Now the kids understand what it means to be an Alonso basketball player. You’ve got to establish some accountability, responsibility and commitment, then build off of that.

“We’re definitely not the biggest team in the world. We will depend a lot on our ability to shoot the basketball. That leads to winning some games you shouldn’t win if you get hot, but also losing some games you should win if the shooting isn’t on that night. The biggest thing, I believe, is the kids now have an expectation of winning and they know what it takes. They’re willing to work hard to achieve those goals.’’

Price said he is encouraged by basketball participation in the general Westchase area. He believes it will lead to more stability for his program.

The ability to build off of last season’s success will also send a strong message.

“We’re happy with what could do last season,’’ Price said. “Now I think the kids want more.’’

By Joey Johnston

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