Petal travels to Florida for City of Palms Classic

By CAMAL PETRO,

The Petal Panthers will spend a few days of their holiday break in the Sunshine State this week.

Starting Thursday, the Panthers will play in the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Florida, taking on Glens Fall (New York) at 5:30 p.m. EST in the Signature Series portion of the event. The winner will play the La Crosse Central (Wisconsin) – Brunswick (Georgia) Saturday at 4 p.m. EST for the Signature Series Championship, and the third place game will tip at 11 a.m. EST.

All games will be played on the campus of Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers.

“I’m trying to keep them focused on (Monday’s game against Harrison Central) because they’re so excited about that,” Petal coach Todd Kimble said Monday prior Petal’s last game before leaving for Florida. “I hope the trip to Florida doesn’t get us beat (Monday). They’re extremely excited.”

Don’t worry, the excitement didn’t hurt the Panthers Monday, beating Harrison Central 66-62 to improve to 10-0 this season.

Petal left for Fort Myers Tuesday and will return to the Pine Belt on Sunday, and it was the first time flying for “about half” of the team, Kimble said.

“I hadn’t heard anybody say they’re nervous, but I’m sure when they get on the plane they’ll be a little nervous,” Kimble said. “I think it’s more of an excitement more than anything else.”

Petal is 10-0 after beating Harrison Central Monday night, and has wins over Wayne County, Hattiesburg, Picayune and Newton. However, the Panthers’ toughest challenge to date will be Glens Falls. Led by the state’s all-time scoring leader Joe Girard III, the Indians are 8-0 and averaging more than 90 points per game.

“I don’t think I can compare them to anybody around here,” Kimble said. “It’s a different league and the way they play is different. We play an inside-out game, and theirs is strictly perimeter. It’s shooting from the perimeter and driving to the basket. You don’t run across teams like that here.”

With well more than 3,000 high school points scored, Girard broke the state record as a junior. Also, he committed to Syracuse University in October prior to the season starting. He had offers from Duke, Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State as well, and the 6-foot-2 shooting guard also led the football team to a state championship in the fall as the team’s quarterback.

As a junior, he stunningly averaged 50 points per game and hit 179 3-pointers in 23 games, helping his team to a 20-3 overall record.

“I think it’s a great test for our guys,” Kimble said. “Don Avila will be the guy who’ll guard him, and when you guard a guy who’s the No. 1 scorer in the state of New York and already committed to Syracuse, I look at it as an opportunity to see how good you are. Can you guard this guy? It’s more of an opportunity than anything.”

Glens Falls is also home to professional basketball player Jimmer Fredette, who led college basketball in scoring during the 2010-11 season at Brigham Young University.

Petal’s path to Fort Myers was somewhat of a lucky one. Kimble doesn’t exactly know how, but someone who had influence with the City of Palms Classic saw the Panthers play last season, and the tournament came calling a few months later.

Donnie Wilkie, the Classic’s vice president, called Kimble in May to see if Petal was interested. Kimble was definitely interested, but it took him a few weeks to get everything squared away.

“The booster club just did a phenomenal job,” Kimble said. “We put the word out of what we were trying to do, and we just got monetary donations, we sold T-shirts, we raffled off a quail hunt, we sold advertising for the gym and game sponsors, so it was a lot of different things.”

The Panthers are quickly becoming a threat in 6A this season, and a few days at a national tournament should only help them moving forward. Petal wants to win in Florida, but Kimble understands there’s a bigger picture.

“I’m looking at it as a team building experience more than anything else,” he said. “The bracket we’re in, I think we can compete with the people we’re playing. Of course, we want to go try to win, but when you take a group of guys and they’re basically living together for that length of time, they find out a little bit more about what each individual person is really all about.

“I did this for these guys to have this experience. That’s why we’re going.”

The City of Palms Classic is broken down into three different tournaments. Petal is in the four-team Signature Series, while 16 teams make up the Traditional Bracket, including Mississippi’s Olive Branch. There is also a six-team Sunshine Series, which is made up of six Florida teams.

Also in the Signature Series, La Crosse Central is 5-1 so far this season while Brunswick has started 7-1.