Last season, the Pine Forest boys basketball team made history.
The Eagles opened the season on a 14-game winning streak, powered their way to a 30-2 record, won a region championship and earned the program’s first ever appearance in the state championship game.
But after graduating nine seniors, the Eagles have to contend with talent-loaded competition in District 1-6A this season, which began Monday.
Pine Forest will return just five players — including two seniors, guards Reggie McKelvey and Deonya Walton — from last year’s team.
McKelvey averaged 5.4 points a game and 3.6 rebounds a game last season, while Walton averaged 4.4 points and 2.8 rebounds a game.
“It’s going to be rough, as usual,” Pine Forest coach Brad Grant said. “Any time you get Pensacola High and Pine Forest together, it’s always a rough, hard fought game. Washington, Pensacola High — any time you get any of these Pensacola-area teams together.
“You can’t leave out Milton and Pace. Pace has everybody back. They only lost one kid, and Milton — they have a lot of guys that can play, as well.”
The Patriots have the potential to give opponents fits this season, returning seven seniors and all but two starters.
“We’ve got a group of guys, I think any one of them could hurt you,” Pace coach Carl Pippin said. “They’re all good basketball players. I feel like we’re really well balanced.
“They’re a very unselfish group. If one has an ability to score, they take it, and if they don’t, they distribute.”
Pensacola High has just three returning players, but coach Terrance Harris is ready to pick up where the team left off last year.
“This is definitely not a new start,” Harris said. “One of the things about this team, you have those teams who you just feel are special. The bond these guys have together is one that’s going to identify how special they are.
“Our biggest challenge all season is going to be our size. I still believe we’ll be the smallest team on the floor every night. They’re going to have to play well and execute every night.”
Despite the team’s size, The Tigers’ ability to draw fouls and hit free throws should prove key to the team’s success this season.
While there’s no clear-cut favorite in 1-6A as the season begins, there’s no doubt everyone will be watching Pine Forest.
The Eagles won’t have to wait long to see how they stack up against the competition as they open the season today with a District 1-6A game at Escambia.
“It’s going to be a district like it always is,” Grant said. “Every night’s going to be rough.”
Fort Walton Beach is the team to beat in 1-7A after moving over from the 2-6A district in the offseason.
The 2-6A champ last season, the Vikings should prove a challenge for Navarre, Tate, Niceville and Crestview.
Last season, Gulf Breeze was bounced from the 1-5A tournament following a 52-38 loss to Panama City Bay in the first round.
The Dolphins will try to improve on last year’s .500 district record, but Bay and Panama City Rutherford still will be waiting come postseason.
“I think what we’re looking for this year is a little more consistency on the offensive end,” Gulf Breeze coach Von de Kozan said. “I think we play pretty good defense.
“That’s where we start, and our kids buy into the defensive philosophy of the coaches.”
Coach Nick Mead and the Catholic Crusaders will try to defend their District 1-4A title from last season.
Catholic, eliminated in the region quarterfinals by East Gadsden, will return all five starters and should be in good shape to make another run into the postseason.
“I will tell you that the demeanor of this bunch is different,” Mead said. “They’re very fun to coach.
“Where they have grown up more than anything is that they are the most self-motivated team I’ve ever seen.”
Coming off a disappointing 2012 season, Pensacola Christian will try to reload this year.
The Warriors will have to improve on last year’s 1-5 district record, but North Bay Haven and Rocky Bayou could be challenging to contend with.
Escambia Charter made it to the District 1-2A title game before falling to FAMU (Tallahassee) last season.
The Bulldogs look to advance to the region tournament for a second-consecutive year, but in order to do so, they will have to battle through a tightly contested five-team district.
After a disappointing loss in the district semifinals, the Central Jaguars will try to improve on a season that saw them amass a 19-8 record.
“We don’t have any seniors, so we’re going to have to go through a little bit of growing pains early on,” Central coach Anthony McDonald said.
The Jaguars are returning four starters and junior Zac Wright (averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds a game last season) should give the Jaguars a scoring threat.
The squad opens the season today when it hosts Pensacola Christian Academy.
Falling to Holmes County 77-63 in the district semifinal last season, the Northview Chiefs seek to find a measure of revenge this season.
The Chiefs, led by senior Neino Robinson, will face some stiff competition from Holmes County and Chipley, the District 3-1A defending champion.