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NAIA to offer flag football for females

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Robinson flag football celebrating

Robinson has a flag football dynasty with five state titles and a runnerup finish in the past six seasons. Still, Knights coach Josh Saunders constantly worries about coaches in other sports, particularly at the club level, trying to persuade his players to bolt in order to pursue a college scholarship.

There are no flag football programs at the college level, much less any scholarships to offer.

That is about to change. 

On Monday, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) announced a partnership with the NFL and Reigning Champs Experiences (RCX) to put together the first women’s flag football competition governed by a collegiate athletics association.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” Saunders said. “This cracks the ‘flag doesn’t have scholarships’ mantra that other coaches tell players. Some high school coaches do it, not as much at our school anymore, but club coaches are really bad about it. This will likely end that to a degree, but it’s also really great for kids that might get an opportunity to continue playing a sport they love.”

Robinson's flag football team
Robinson’s flag football team

The plan is to increase participation at the college level through showcases that will start in the summer or fall. Competition guidelines will be outlined for colleges interested in starting a program with the first competitive season to be held in 2021 and the first emerging sport or invitational championship in the spring of the following year. 

An emerging sport at the NAIA level must have at least 15 participating schools and invitational status needs at least 25. A sport also is required to have 40 schools involved to be considered for full championship status.

There currently are 11 state colleges that compete at the NAIA level. Webber International said on Monday it plans to add flag football. 

“Football is for everyone,” NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent said in a statement. “This groundbreaking and historic joint venture provides an opportunity for the values, fun and competitive environment of football to be enjoyed as a varsity sport by female student-athletes attending NAIA institutions across America.”

The NFL has made efforts recently to promote the sport. For the past two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation hosted the largest flag football tournament in the nation. This year’s event, held in March, had 57 high school teams.

Locally, teams have thrived. Alonso was a state runnerup from 2010-11 before winning two straight titles in 2018-19. 

“It’s huge,” Ravens coach Matt Hernandez said of having the sport at the college level. “It gives kids a next step to keep playing with scholarship opportunities. I sent out information (Monday) to our team/parents and had a lot of reaction, especially from the younger kids and parents.”

Alonso flag football
Alonso’s flag football team posing after winning a state title

Saunders said this could end up being the first step to having flag football at all levels of college football.

“I think this could continue to push the NCAA in that direction,” Saunders said. “The sport is extremely popular and extremely cheap. That seems like a good combination.”  

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College football: Athlete update

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The top performances from former area stars in week five of the college football season. 

DB Dane Belton, Jr., Iowa: The former Jesuit standout had one of the Hawkeyes’ six interceptions in a win over Maryland.

QB Devin Black, Sr., Bethune Cookman: The former Armwood standout accounted for 258 yards (131 rushing, 127 passing) and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a loss to South Carolina State.  

DL Zachary Carter, Sr., Florida: The former Hillsborough standout recorded three tackles and a sack in a loss to Kentucky.  

QB Austin Day, Sr., Marist: The former Clearwater standout threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Valparaiso. 

RB Jerome Ford, Jr., Cincinnati: The former Armwood star ran for 67 yards on 17 carries in a win over Notre Dame. 

RB Dominic Gonella, So., North Dakota State: The former Bloomingdale standout ran for 37 yards on seven carries in a win over North Dakota. 

WR Travell Harris, Sr., Washington State: The former Jesuit standout had seven catches for 46 yards in a win over California. 

DB Kym-Mani King, Jr., Iowa State: The former Mitchell standout recorded three tackles and picked off a pass in a win over Kansas. 

RB Keyvone Lee, So., Penn State: The former American Collegiate standout ran for 74 yards on eight carries in a win over Indiana. 

DB T.J. Limehouse, Jr., West Florida: The former Armwood standout recorded a team-high 16 tackles in a win over Delta State. 

LB Micah McFadden, Sr., Indiana: The former Plant star recorded eight tackles in a loss to Penn State. 

QB Braxton Plunk, Jr., Mount Union: The former Plant City standout threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Otterbein. 

QB Tyler Riddell, Fr., East Tennessee State: The former Chamberlain standout threw for 268 yards and a touchdown in a win over Wofford. 

WR Mike Roussos, Sr., Columbia: The former River Ridge standout averaged 19 yards per kickoff return and 15 yards per punt return in a loss to Princeton. 

RB Deon Silas, Fr., Iowa State: Ran for 30 yards and a touchdown on three carries in a win over Kansas. 

RB Brian Snead, Jr., Austin Peay: The former Armwood standout ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in a loss to Tennessee State. 

TE Michael Trigg, Fr., USC: The former Carrollwood Day/Seffner Christian standout had two catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in a win over Colorado. 

RB Treshaun Ward, Fr., FSU: The former Tampa Bay Tech standout accounted for 95 yards (66 rushing, 29 receiving) in a win over Syracuse. 

LB Kee Whetzel, Sr., West Florida: The former Countryside standout recorded 10 tackles and a ½ sack in a win over Delta State. 

WR Mario Williams, Fr., Oklahoma: The former Plant City star had three catches for 29 yards in a win over Kansas State. 

LB Stephon Williams, Jr., West Florida: The former Calvary Christian standout recorded five tackles and 1 ½ sacks in a win over Delta State. 

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Iowa State now a hotspot for local football recruits

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Since arriving at Iowa State five years ago, Matt Campbell has guided the program to four straight bowl appearances, including a Fiesta Bowl win this past season that vaulted the Cyclones to No. 9 in the final AP poll, the highest ranking in school history. 

That success is due in part to the talent accumulated in Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area. 

There are currently five local players on the roster, all of whom were recruited by Campbell’s staff. Anthony Johnson, a former standout at St. Petersburg, starts at cornerback. Two other defensive backs, T.J. Tampa (Lakewood) and Kym-Mani King (Mitchell), should get significant playing time this season. 

It does not end there. 

This offseason Iowa State had perhaps its biggest haul of local talent with three offensive stars — Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht, Tampa Bay Tech receiver Greg Gaines III and Berkeley Prep athlete Xavier Townsend — all committing to the Cyclones as part of the 2022 class.  

Gaines is a four-star recruit while Becht and Townsend are both three-star prospects according to 247Sports. The addition of that trio helped the Cyclones’ current recruiting class rise to No. 5 in the Big 12 and No. 23 nationally. 

The recruiting efforts are not just limited to the staff. Becht, who committed in April, said he tried his best to get more offensive talent from the area to join him. 

“I talked to Greg and Xavier everyday,” Becht said of his recruiting pitch to that duo. “I was on them from the beginning.”

Rocco Becht

Iowa State’s staff also zeroed on those targets — and the area.

“The Tampa Bay area is a huge priority,” said Cyclones assistant head coach/linebackers coach Tyson Veidt, who recruits locally. “Some of our best players are from there and it has helped us develop some all-around continuity.”

Iowa State has a knack for landing playmakers in the bay area, particularly on the defensive side. It started more than a decade ago with linebacker Jeremiah George (Clearwater) and defensive back Leonard Johnson (Largo), both of whom played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their NFL careers. 

There has been even more of an emphasis on the area with Campbell and his staff.

That comes from experience. 

Before taking over the Cyclones, Campbell was an offensive coordinator (2009-11) and head coach (2012-15) at Toledo. During his time with the Rockets, the program landed several prospects from the area, including former Lakewood star Bernard Reedy, who went on to play in the NFL. 

In fact, Campbell had at least one local commit in each of his recruiting classes as Toledo’s head coach. That helped the Rockets rank among the top two recruiting classes in the MAC in three of the four years during Campbell’s tenure. 

The trend has continued at Iowa State. 

And it is having an impact, especially with the camaraderie among locals. 

“Well, of course, the decision was for me and my future as a student athlete,” said Townsend, who committed to the Cyclones on Sunday. “But it was icing on the cake knowing a couple of my boys are coming up with me.”

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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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