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Area football coaches hold spring practices virtually

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East Lake online practice

There is no bell signaling school has ended. After all, students in the state  — and nation  — are learning from home via virtual classrooms. Still, the East Lake football players knew to immerse themselves in the sport once their online courses were finished on Monday. 

They took their seats, opened their laptops and logged into Zoom meetings with their coaches. They talked about team philosophies. They analyzed video. They discussed formations and plays. 

Monday was supposed to mark the start of spring practice in football. That did not happen. The Florida High School Athletic Association canceled the month-long training session, along with the other spring sports, because schools remained closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nothing changed for East Lake, at least with its practice schedule. On Monday, there was a team meeting for all players to kickoff the spring. That was followed by offensive, defensive and special teams sessions. 

East Lake virtual

There are no workouts on the field. No putting on the pads. No collisions. But the script remains the same for Eagles. There are two-hour weekday practices for the next month, only now everything is done in a virtual setting. 

“We wanted to get the players in a routine and create as much normalcy as possible,” East Lake coach Bob Hudson said. 

This is all new for Hudson, who is entering his 18th season.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I’m a text and email guy. I don’t even do anything with social media.”

The longtime coach took advice from others on getting acclimated to this new wave of technology. He talked to college coaches about what they were doing during the lockdown. He enlisted the help of assistants and family members to set up Zoom meetings. He got feedback from players once the online system was set up.

There were other adjustments, too. Hudson needed to make sure position coaches are teaching the same formations and plays on the same day. He had to figure out what meetings players who line up on both sides of the ball should attend. 

Another important detail is etiquette. Players must wear shirts during meetings. They have to mute any background noise or music. And they are required to raise hands before speaking to avoid any interruptions. 

“This is more than just football,” Hudson said. “This is about life lessons. When these guys get out into the real world and have jobs, they are likely to be in a lot of Zoom meetings. It’s the wave of the future. And they need to know what would be expected of them and how to behave in that type of setting.” 

For the players, the online classrooms are more than just teaching plays and formations. They also help them stay socially active and build camaraderie.   

“It was great to be able to see the whole team and hear from my coaches again,” said Eagles running back/defensive back Ryan Cunningham, who will be a rising senior. “I think that doing these virtual meetings is going to have a huge impact for our team on the mental aspect of things as we can still communicate and install ideas as if we were at school. With the spring season being canceled, it’s important that the whole team stays in communication because now is a very important time to get ahead of the curve.” 

East Lake might be the only area program sticking to the same spring schedule. Others, though, are still keeping contact with players this month on video chats. Mitchell already had its players doing home workouts for several weeks. And the Mustangs plan on holding position and coaches meetings via Zoom. Nature Coast sent daily cardio and bodyweight exercises for players to do Monday-Thursday. The Sharks’ staff also is constantly checking grades, contacting any player that falls below a C in any class. 

Jesuit coach Matt Thompson is not consumed in the virtual world. His players can watch game videos on their Hudl accounts. They can also work out on their own. But Thompson has no plans to hold mass online meetings. 

“It looks good. It sounds good, but there’s no real value in it for us,” Thompson said. “Plus, we already have kids taking final exams and spending their time with that.”

Clearwater Central Catholic, meanwhile, has been holding meetings since school was closed last month. The Marauders set up video conferences 3-4 times a week. On Mondays, the entire team gets together online. Sometimes there is even a special guest appearance. 

“It may be a waste of time, but kids need structure,” CCC coach Chris Harvey said. “I don’t know if it will make us a better team, but people come to CCC and get used to their time being used efficiently, and we didn’t want this to take that away. We don’t want to keep them for hours like we would with practice, but we do want them to understand what we are missing and try to minimize how that hurts us.”

The meetings with players are not the only virtual ones coaches are conducting this offseason. Many also are having video chats with college coaches to discuss potential recruits. Armwood coach Evan Davis said he was averaging about 4-6 a week, a number he expects to increase now that the NCAA has limited how much contact coaches can have with its own players while they are taking exams the next two weeks.

Armwood's Evan Davis
Armwood’s Evan Davis

“It’s a balancing act with all of this,” Davis said. “As coaches, we’re spending time with college guys and our players. And with the team, you want to keep them engaged but try not to overdo it with the online meetings.”

The conferences are not restricted to teams. Officials have been holding them, too. The Sunshine Football Officials Association, which covers mostly Pinellas and Pasco County schools, started conducting video sessions at the end of last season for officials to brush up on rules before the playoffs. They have had four more meetings this year.

Hudson knows there are still questions to be answered. How much football knowledge will the players retain?  Is there a risk of video burnout? That will require some tweaks to the system. 

“It’s all trial and error,” Hudson said. “What we want more than anything else is for the players to stay mentally focused and learn as much as possible so when we actually get back on the field we’re not starting from square one.”

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FHSAA releases softball class and district assignments

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The Florida High School Athletic Association released the classifications, districts and regions for softball this coming season. The assignments are based on student enrollment numbers from October 2020. This is a one-year cycle that the FHSAA board of directors voted on earlier this year. There likely will be a two-year cycle starting with the 2022-23 calendar year. Below is the list for area teams. For the full  boys softball list click here.

Class 7A, District 6

Durant

Newsome

Plant City

Riverview

Class 7A, District 7

Alonso

East Lake

Steinbrenner

Palm Harbor University

Plant

Class 6A, District 5

Gaither

Land O’ Lakes

Largo

Leto

Mitchell

Sickles

Class 6A, District 6

Armwood

Strawberry Crest

Tampa Bay Tech

Wharton

Wiregrass Ranch

Class 6A, District 7

Bloomingdale

Bradenton Manatee

Lennard

Palmetto

Class 5A, District 5

Fivay

Lecanto

River Ridge

Springstead

Sunlake

Class 5A, District 6

Auburndale

Groveland South Lake

Lakeland Kathleen

Pasco

Class 5A, District 9

Blake

Freedom

Hillsborough

Jefferson

King

Class 5A, District 10

Countryside

Osceola

Pinellas Park

Seminole

Class 5A, District 11

Boca Ciega

Hollins

Northeast

St. Petersburg

Class 5A, District 12

Braden River

Bradenton Southeast

Brandon

East Bay

Spoto

Class 4A, District 9

Cypress Creek

Hudson

Nature Coast

Wesley Chapel

Zephyrhills

Class 4A, District 10

Anclote

Clearwater

Dunedin

Gulf 

Tarpon Springs

Class 4A, District 11

Chamberlain

Lake Region

Middleton

Mulberry

Robinson

Class 3A, District 6

Central

Hernando

South Sumter

Weeki Wachee

Class 3A, District 9

Academy of the Holy Names

Berkeley Prep

Brooks DeBartolo

Lakeland McKeel

Tampa Catholic

Class 3A, District 11

Calvary Christian

Clearwater Central Catholic

Lakewood

Parrish

Sarasota Cardinal Mooney

Class 2A, District 6

Bishop McLaughlin

Hernando Christian

Mount Dora Christian

Ocala Trinity Catholic

Seven Rivers Christian

Class 2A, District 9

Academy at the Lakes

Cambridge Christian

Carrollwood Day

Foundation Christian

Lakeside Christian

Seffner Christian

Class 2A, District 10

Admiral Farragut

Canterbury

Indian Rocks Christian

Northside Christian

Shorecrest

St. Petersburg Catholic

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Former Largo and Illinois standout Bobby Roundtree dies

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Bobby Roundtree, the former Largo High and Illinois standout defensive lineman who became an inspiration for many by vowing to walk again after suffering a spinal cord injury, died Friday afternoon, the family confirmed. He was 23. 

No other details were provided. 

A candlelight vigil will be held Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Ridgecrest YMCA. Those in attendance are encouraged to wear their 97Strong apparel.

Roundtree’s death came two weeks after he received the Bruce Capel Award for Courage, an honor given annually by the Illinois football program. 

Less than 24 hours ago before he passed, Roundtree posted a message on his Twitter page.

More than two years ago, Rountree was in a hospital bed, the result of a swimming accident near the docks off John’s Pass that required spinal cord surgery. It left him in a wheelchair. 

Before the accident, the goals were all related to football. A former two-sport star, Roundtree developed into a ferocious pass-rusher, first at Largo, then at Illinois. As a sophomore in 2018, he won the Dick Butkus Outstanding Defensive Player award after leading the Illini in tackles for loss (12.5), sacks (7.5) and pass breakups (7). His play made him a viable NFL draft pick.

Photos courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Since then, the ambitions have been different. 

Roundtree wanted to be independent. He wanted to travel. He wanted to coach, maybe even start his own rehabilitation center. 

Most of all, he wanted to walk again. 

“I just want to show everybody that anything’s possible,” Roundtree recently said last year in his first interview (via Zoom) with reporters since the accident. “You can be on top of the world and something happens, things might not go as planned, but there’s something out there for everybody.

“This injury isn’t going to overcome me. I’m going to beat this and be successful.”

After the accident, once the surgery was over, Roundtree woke up to machines beeping in every corner of the room. His mother, Jacqueline Hearns, kept saying he was special, that he was beating the odds. 

Friends and teammates were there, too, including former East Lake standout Jake Hansen, now a starting linebacker with the Illini. 

The coaching staff also came to the Tampa Bay area to be by Roundtree’s side. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith practically lived at the hospital, even while preparing for the 2019 season. 

The bond between the player and coach has always been strong. After all, Roundtree was one of the marquee names in Smith’s first recruiting classes. 

“Everything that Lovie said during the recruiting process, about being a family, he stuck by,” Packers coach Marcus Paschal said last year. “You could see it during Bobby’s injury and hospital stay. I don’t know of too many other college coaches who would have done what he did. That was big.”

In June of 2019, Rountree was transported to a rehabilitation center in Chicago. He had lost 70 pounds. He could barely raise his right hand, much less do push ups, after the surgery. 

Roundtree ignored conservative prescriptions for recovery, continuingly defying odds. Before long, he was manually pushing himself in a wheelchair. His triceps muscles were developing.

None of this came as a surprise to Jeremy Busch, the head athletic trainer for Illinois football. 

“After this injury you watched a person that eventually was at the worst point in his life, and yet he doesn’t acknowledge that to where it beats him, but he acknowledges it to motivate him,” Busch said last year of Roundtree. “He’s truly your idea of hope and inspiration on a daily basis. He’s gone from the simplest of struggles to absolutely overcoming everything that you put in front of him.”

Roundtree also was determined not to stay in football exile. He kept in contact with teammates. The coaching staff included him in meetings, virtually. 

The grit Roundtree showed through the grueling stages gave the Illini inspiration. A sign was displayed on the top of a tunnel that the players would touch before heading out to Memorial Stadium. It read: 97 Strong (referring to Roundtree’s number).

Illinois became the feel-good team of college football in 2019. The wins kept coming, often in dramatic ways. 

A field goal as time expired was the difference when the Illini handed the Badgers, ranked No. 6 at the time, their first loss in October of last season. It was the Illini’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2011. Afterward, Illinois players recorded videos of their celebration and sent them to Roundtree.

Three weeks later, the Illini rallied from a 21-point third quarter deficit to beat Michigan State 37-34. 

“I would do anything for the kid,” Hansen said last year of Roundtree. “He’s been a huge inspiration.”

Roundtree attended the 2019 regular season finale, his first game at Memorial Stadium since the injury. He led the team in a pregame prayer. 

And Roundtree remained part of the team. His locker was untouched. 

“Having the team I have now I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” Roundtree said last year. “They’ve been very supportive. They know I’m going to work. I know they’re going to work. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

The Illini faithful have shown financial support, too, pledging money to help offset some of Roundtree’s medical expenses. 

“With everybody so behind me and pushing me, that makes me want to go harder,” Roundtree said last year. “The support of everybody fundraising and everybody donating that means a lot having that support. I don’t have a million dollars to help me through this all. People are giving their last pennies to help me out. That’s just a lot of love right there, and I appreciate everybody for that.”

Roundtree spent the past year at home in Largo rehabilitating. He kept posting video messages of his progress. He bench pressed. He did core work. He rolled on to his side, even tried to stand up with the aid of athletic trainers.  

The final steps Roundtree wanted to take were on his own. 

“When somebody tells me I can’t do something I’m going to prove them wrong and show that I’ll be able to do it,” Roundtree said last year. “It might take me a couple of tries, but I’m going to do it.

“I want to show everybody that anything is possible, no matter the situation.”

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack commits to Alabama

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack had offers from 15 schools entering this week, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU. 

Then Niblack went to a camp at Alabama and picked up an offer from the Crimson Tide. 

That was all the three-star prospect needed to make up his mind. 

On Thursday, Niblack announced on social media that he committed to Alabama. 

A 6-foot-4 pass catching target, Niblack can play receiver or tight end. This past season, he had seven receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns according to the stats listed on MaxPreps. 

This is the second straight season Alabama has landed an area receiver and the third time in the past five seasons the Crimson Tide has picked a local skill player.

Agiye Hall, who starred at Armwood and Bloomingdale, was part of the 2021 class. He was an early enrollee and has already made an impact with several highlight-worthy catches in the spring game. 

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