At 5 p.m. Friday, sweat was pouring down the faces of the players on the Pensacola High girls basketball team.
The Tigers were midway through a scrimmage with the boys junior varsity and freshmen players. Down by about 25 points, the girls still were giving the game almost everything they had.
Of course, the boys were faster and stronger. The girls didn't have any hopes of even coming close to winning. But that wasn't the point.
"This is a great way to prepare them for the district tournament," PHS coach Alison Davis said. "That's what I like -- no matter what the scoreboard indicates, we should see improvement because of the challenge of the competition that we're facing."
And the Tigers know the caliber of opponents they'll face this week as the District 1-6A tournament gets under way today at Pace.
Most notably, the No. 2 seed Tigers (19-3) are getting ready for top-seeded Pine Forest (20-2), which beat PHS twice during the regular season -- 55-42 on Dec. 14 at PHS and 45-36 on Jan. 18 at Pine Forest.
The two teams are favorites to reach the district championship game, which is at 7 p.m. Saturday.
"It's been a while since something like that has happened," Davis said of the Eagles' regular-season sweep. "We usually split games with other teams during the regular season, but we've never lost both games. And both times, it was just a very bad night for us."
Davis, of course, is encouraging her players not to have another bad night -- especially during the postseason when the stakes are at their highest. And especially because the Eagles, ranked No. 2 in the state by the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches and Source Hoops, have everything that it takes to advance deep into the postseason and leave the Tigers, ranked sixth, behind.
What makes a district title even more important is that the 1-6A winner will get to host the first round of the state playoffs. The loser likely will have to travel to play 2-6A power Choctawhatchee, ranked third in the state.
The Eagles know all too well what a road trip to face the Indians can be like. They lost to Choctaw in double-overtime of the region quarterfinals last year. PHS opened at home en route to its fifth straight Final Four appearance.
"I think because of what happened last year -- us losing in double-overtime, we know how important it is to play at home," Pine Forest coach Chris Godwin said. "It would be a huge accomplishment for this team, and it just feels good to play at home."
No. 5 seed Navarre and No. 4 Washington kick off the district tournament at 6 p.m. today. That game is followed by one between No. 6 Escambia and No. 3 Pace at 7:30.
Pine Forest and PHS open with games Tuesday at 6 and 7:30, respectively. The Eagles will play No. 8 Tate, while the Tigers will play No. 7 Milton.
Pine Forest is led by senior Jayla King, a University of South Florida signee, who averages more than 14 points a game. Senior point guard Tia Sanders also often scores in double figures and is a proven leader for the team. The pair has been with the Eagles since their freshman year when the squad advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals.
"I make sure to remind our seniors that this is their last year," Godwin said. "I ask them, 'Don't y'all want to end how you started? Making it to the Final Four?' We just have to continue that mind set of playing every game like it's our last."
Other key players for the Eagles include 5-foot sophomore Ty Purifoy -- who scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds against PHS earlier this month -- and Britney Snowden.
The Tigers will be led by senior Chelsey Gibson, who has averaged 19.5 points in the two games against Pine Forest. Other key PHS players are Shamina Hunter and Kayla Pritchett.
For PHS, the district tournament will be just as much about redemption as it is winning another championship and getting one step closer to reaching the Final Four.
"It's weird to say that it's been a difficult season when you've only lost three games all year," Davis said. "But for us, because of the way we've lost them and knowing that we had every opportunity to play better, it makes it that much more difficult.
"I'm just hopeful they'll just play and do what we ask them to do. I think if they do, they'll rise to the occasion."