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Winter Park goes to Rise

Austin Rivers led the Wildcats in their ESPN Rise Tournament run last season.

Austin Rivers led the Wildcats in their ESPN Rise Tournament run last season.

Isaac Babcock

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It's official: Winter Park’s boys basketball team is headed for a last hurrah as senior Austin Rivers and a cabal of state champion seniors were just picked for the 2011 ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, tipping off March 31.

Only eight teams from across the country will be bracketed for the boys tournament, which is in its third year. Seven teams were announced Tuesday afternoon, with one team yet to be confirmed.

The bracket had yet to be updated as of early Tuesday afternoon, but assuming seedings based on ESPN RISE FAB 50 rankings and last year's bracketing structure, the Wildcats could be the No. 4 seed, facing No. 5-seed Dwyer from Miami in the quarterfinal. The Las Vegas Sun has reported that Dwyer will play Findlay Prep in the quarterfinal, not Winter Park, and that Winter Park could face Dwyer in the championship game.

The Wildcats have a distinct advantage over Florida 5A state champion Dwyer: They’ve already beaten them once this season, winning 76-64 on Dec. 20. During that game Rivers put on a clinic, scoring 42 points including hitting five 3-pointers, while grabbing 7 rebounds and forcing 5 turnovers. The Wildcats are the only team in the nation to defeat Dwyer this season.

As late as Monday Winter Park Head Coach David Bailey had neither confirmed nor denied a rumor that he’d already been contacted by the tournament and accepted an offer to play, but rumors continued to swirl.

Last season, the Wildcats appeared in the tournament after winning the state championship. At the time, they were ranked No. 11 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 rankings, despite having more losses than 45 of the 50 teams. That the Wildcats were invited to last year’s tournament seemed a reflection of their strength of schedule during the high school basketball season, in which Winter Park frequently faced the nation’s best teams.

After being seeded No. 5 in the tournament, they finished in the semifinals, falling to tournament runner-up Montverde Academy.

This year, the Wildcats are at No. 14 in the national rankings just one week out from the tournament, but it’s rising. Once again, a tough schedule has given them more losses than 47 of the 50 ranked teams.

One team invited to the tournament, John Carroll Academy from Maryland, wasn’t ranked at all in the top 50, despite their 33-4 record.