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Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Winter Park boys basketball coach David Bailey has had to start with a totally new starting lineup.
Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011 10 years ago

Wildcats learn to win without their star power

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Life without Austin Rivers
by: Isaac Babcock Managing Editor

Winter Park’s football team may have bowed out of the postseason in the first round, but the boys basketball team has already regained the school’s winning ways with a 55-43 blasting of Bartow on Nov. 26 to open the season.

The Wildcats fell 27-14 on the gridiron against Olympia Nov. 19 in the first round of the regional playoffs, just as the basketball season was getting started.

And during the boys basketball team’s first game, fans got a glimpse of what life will be like without the super-powered Wildcats squad that won back-to-back state championships in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons.

After their most recent state title, the Wildcats had to deal with a worst-case scenario: losing all of their starting players. The championship lineup that had taken Winter Park to back-to-back wins all graduated at the same time, including national superstar Austin Rivers, who frequently ranked as the No. 1 high school player for his final season on the court.

Now the Wildcats’ most seasoned player is Michael Merlano, a senior who saw the majority of his playing time in the second halves of the team’s postseason games after the Wildcats had built enough of a scoring gap.

But the towering 6-foot-9 inch center will bring something the Wildcats lacked last season — size. They won’t lack experience either, at least on the court in general. But of the team’s varsity roster, only three remain, and they were all benchwarmers last season. The rest of the team has been bolstered by transfer students, JV promotions and cross-training football players.

Something that fans may have been looking for since the graduation of the biggest star to ever wear a Winter Park uniform is the rise of his heir apparent. Rivers’ younger brother, Spencer, played his varsity debut in the team’s season opener, grabbing a single rebound in his short time on the court.

The Wildcats take on Spruce Creek at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, at home, and then head to Cypress Creek at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7.

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