The court at Pensacola State College’s Hartsell Arena has an extra gleam.
The wood playing surface has been refurbished, along with a fresh coat of wax applied in a month of work since the basketball season had its semester break.
How it looks now provides an appropriate stage for what awaits Saturday at 5:30 p.m. when the No. 10 PSC women’s team (16-0) faces No. 5 Northwest Florida State (15-0) in a pairing of nationally ranked, unbeaten junior college basketball teams.
That will be immediately followed by the men’s game featuring unbeaten, No. 1 Northwest Florida State (17-0) against PSC (11-6).
What a way to begin the 2018 Panhandle Conference schedule.
“The opponent, the night, this setting sets up so well for us,” said PSC men’s coach Pete Pena. “It’s as good as it gets for our level.”
The combined records of all four teams, along with the rankings make this one of PSC’s biggest conference home openers of any recent season.
“It is really going to be a special night,” said Pena, now in his eighth season as PSC men’s basketball coach. “With my team, I have been fighting so much just calming everybody down.”
The PSC women were 15-1 and ranked No. 15 when last year’s conference schedule started. They finished 18-10, which was still a marked improvement from recent seasons.
But with a more experienced team and last year as reminder, PSC coach Penny Belford is confident of more successful navigation through this demanding conference.
Four Panhandle teams are currently ranked in the Top 10 of the National Junior College Athletic Association women’s poll, led by No. 1 Gulf Coast State. All five member teams are ranked in the Top 16.
“There are not many conferences at any level where you can look at it and say that,” Belford said. “I think they (PSC players) are ready. The biggest part coming off this beak was whether they would be in shape.
“They came back, they did what they were supposed to, and they know we can compete. Pensacola State is no longer the team everybody can just beat up on.”
One of her team’s challenges will be shaking off effects from not playing since Dec. 9. A holiday week tournament Belford arranged was cancelled when teams dropped out. In contrast, Northwest Florida State has played three games in the past two weeks.
The PSC men were in a holiday tournament last week in Tallahassee when their 10-game win streak ended in a loss to Palm Beach State. The Pirates played with only eight players that game after three were ill.
“This has been a week of get healthy and prepare,” Pena said. “So it’s been a big combination of whether to do too much or not enough.
“(Northwest Florida State) is really good… again,” Pena said. “We have been in this position before …. you have to careful of trying to do too much. But you have to try and find something to slow down what they are going to do.”
During the teams’ break, PSC used the time to refurbish the court. Prior to the school year, Hartsell Arena had new LED lights installed in the overhead ceiling. The lighting now combines with the new court to provide a new look for the facility.
“It was just a matter of finding the right time to do it,” Belford said. “I love it… It is a huge upgrade. It is cleaner, fresher, more appealing to the eye. It makes the whole place a little bit brighter.”
Said Pena: “We knew we had to redo it. The decision was made to let’s not do this in a hurry. So we all realized Christmas time was best. I think we have done it well.”