PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Panhandle play in 2019 will be like most others before it, a grueling test of basketball might in which the champion will assert itself among the best women's basketball teams in the country.
Except this year, it might be even tougher.
Three of the five teams in the conference are ranked in the NJCAA top five, with undefeated Northwest Florida at No. 1, followed by Tallahassee at No. 3 and Chipola at No. 4.
Gulf Coast slots into the top ten at No. 9, a formidable ranking yet stunningly in the bottom half of conference projections.
The Lady Commodores open the conference slate at 12-1, visiting Tallahassee Saturday. Even coming off a final four appearance, there's a role reversal for Roonie Scovel's team this time around.
Perhaps they aren't true underdogs, but TCC is the defending national champ. They have the targets on their backs, not GCSC.
"Gulf Coast is definitely the hunter this time, we're not the hunted. Hopefully we've got enough pieces to go hunt," Scovel said. "This will be our first test. Win or lose, we're not going to get crazy either way and we're going to come back to work on Monday and we'll have a good taste of what Panhandle play is."
And it only gets tougher from here.
"Strangely enough is, as good as Tallahassee is, You've got Northwest that's ranked above them and they're next on the list."
The Lady 'Dores host the Raiders on Wednesday, the second of a twelve game conference stretch. The top two teams advance to the state tournament.
They aren't making any excuses, but the team has been playing from behind since Hurricane Michael. While Harrison Field House has been pressed back into service, the weight room and other facilities on site have not yet been restored.
"It's all still a work in progress," Scovel, the assistant athletic director added. "We're probably going to see the effects of that in Panhandle play as you move on and you have to be strong...you know, the grind. But we have twelve games we're going to play one at a time. We're going to see how we do and whether we win or lose on Saturday, we're going to come back on Monday and work harder to get better."
Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. Eastern with the men's game to follow.