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Hillsborough’s Erriyon Knighton: the fastest high school athlete in America

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Erriyon Knighton accelerated powerfully at the start of his 200 meter race. By the time the Hillsborough High sprinter turned the corner, he already had the lead.

Running alone — startlingly alone — for the last half of the event, Knighton showed no interest in slowing down with the gold medal at last weekend’s Junior Olympics already a foregone conclusion. 

Instead, Knighton dashed to the finish, screeching past a fast field and into the record books. 

The result was a stunning wind-legal time of 20.33 seconds, the fastest-ever recorded in the 16 year old’s age group (15-16) at the Junior Olympics and the nation’s top time by a high school athlete so far this year. 

“I was really just trying to beat the age group record of 20.62,” Knighton said. “I knew I went pretty fast, maybe had a time of like 20.55. 

“Once they told me my actual time, I was in shock.”

So was the rest of the track world. 

Knighton shaved 56 seconds off his personal best set last month. And his blistering 20.33 time was just 0.20 seconds off the under-18 world record set by Usain Bolt. 

That was not all. 

In the 100 meters, Knighton again sprinted to the head of the class at the Junior Olympics, this time winning in 10.29 seconds, a time that is tied for the nation’s top mark by a high school athlete this year.

Those two performances got the attention of several sports celebrities, locally and nationally, who weighed in on the eye-opening times. 

Former Lakers standout Mychal Thompson, the father of Golden State’s Klay Thompson, took to social media, comparing Knighton to track icon Bolt. 

Trayvon Bromell, the Olympic sprinter who starred at Gibbs and Baylor, also heaped praise on Knighton, particularly boasting about the speed Florida produces. 

“I’m happy for (Knighton),” Bromell said. “Those are great times to be running at his age.”

Even though Knighton has solidified himself as the premier up-and-coming sprinter in the nation, if not the world, his meteoric rise is somewhat startling.

After all, Knighton still is a novice in the sport. He took up track for the first time last year, due in part to a heavy push from Terriers coach Joey Sipp. 

“I knew it would only help him in football,” Sipp said.

Knighton is a neophyte in football, too. He started taking the sport seriously in middle school and didn’t play varsity at Hillsborough until this past season. As a sophomore, Knighton had just seven receptions, four of which went for touchdowns. 

“Erriyon is the fastest guy we’ve ever had and we’ve had some pretty fast dudes around here,” Hillsborough football coach Earl Garcia said. “The thing that’s the most impressive about Erriyon is he’s not just a track guy that happens to play football. He blocks. He’ll return kicks. He can do it all on the field.”

Knighton’s big-play ability, combined with his speed, made him a bona fide football prospect. He is already ranked as a four-star recruit on 247 Sports’ composite list and has offers from six Division I-A programs, including Florida and FSU.

Track stardom took more time.

“I really didn’t think I would be that good as a sprinter,” Knighton said. “I was really doing it because I thought it might help me a little bit and stay in shape for football.”

At last year’s Junior Olympics, Knighton took home medals in the 100 and 200. That was the moment he felt he could excel in the sport. 

Knighton’s performance this year is even more impressive when you consider his high school season was reduced to just a few meets and his training regimen has been cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The scary thing is Erriyon is just scratching the surface,” Sipp said. “I don’t even think he realizes just how fast he can be.”

Blazing past defenders — and opposing sprinters — is something Knighton has the chance to do on the next level. 

So far, Knighton’s only track scholarship is from FSU. Still, the multi-sport star said every football coach who has offered told him he could run track. 

Knighton’s future is coming into his focus. 

So is his vision. 

This summer, Knighton failed a physical because of poor eyesight. He had 20/100 vision in one eye and 20/80 in the other. He now has glasses and plans on getting contacts. 

“It didn’t really bother me in track,” Knighton said. “I could still see. The only thing that was blurry was when I tried to read plays from the sideline in football.”

The picture is clear. Two more years of football and track at Hillsborough, followed by four more years of both sports in college. 

What becomes the focus after that?

“I might lean toward track, slightly,” Knighton said. “I’m thinking about the Olympics more and more.” 

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Tampa Bay Tech’s Rod Gainey transfers to IMG Academy

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Rod Gainey, one of the nation’s premier running backs in the Class of 2024, is leaving Tampa Bay Tech after one season to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Titans coach Jayson Roberts confirmed. 

As a freshman last season, Gainey rushed for 836 yards (7.7 per carry) and had 10 touchdowns on the ground to give Tampa Bay Tech’s high-powered passing game some balance. 

Already a youth league legend in Hillsborough County, Gainey’s performance in his debut high school season only solidified his stats as one of the county’s top recruits in his class. 

Gainey already has offers from Florida, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Penn State, Toledo, UCF, USF and West Virginia, among others. 

This is the second offseason the Titans have lost a star ball carrier to IMG. Last year, Stacey Gage, an incoming freshman at the time, said he was deciding between Tampa Bay Tech and IMG. He ultimately joined the Ascenders, who are a national powerhouse. 

Though the loss of Gainey hurts, Roberts said the ground game still is in solid shape thanks to an offensive line that returns all five starters — Kai Gadson, Shaun Lango, Fred Neal, DJ Porcher and J’shon Scott. And that list does not include Melvin Sylvester, a 6-foot-5, 270 pound incoming freshman who should get plenty of playing time. 

James Evans, John Ponder and Ronald Sims will now handle the bulk of the rushing load, Roberts said. 

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Meet Lakewood’s queen of the block

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Melia Garcia knew all about the success of Lakewood’s athletic program before arriving this year as an advanced placement and honors world history teacher.

The subject that really piqued her interest was football. Discussions about the sport constantly came up, particularly among the players in her classes.

Garcia was hooked. She became one of the Spartans’ most ardent supporters, attending nearly every game.  

Still, Garcia grew tired of watching from the stands. So she came up with an idea that would allow her to be more directly involved with the program.

In January, Garcia asked Lakewood coach Cory Moore about joining the football staff. 

There were no double takes from Moore, despite Garcia having no previous coaching experience. 

“I knew she was serious about it,” Moore said. “And I welcomed it because I saw just how good of a teacher Melia is in the classroom and how well she interacted with her students.

“I thought that was exactly the kind of addition we could use on staff.”

At first, Moore had Garcia observe offseason conditioning so they could decide the best fit for her as an assistant. 

Garcia zeroed in on the trenches. 

She wanted to coach the offensive line. 

“That’s the one area I felt most passionate about,” Garcia said. 

Women have broken plenty of barriers to coach at the highest level of football. There are currently eight female coaches in the NFL, including two on the staff of the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar. 

Those trailblazers helped pave the way for other females to become coaches in the college and high school ranks.

Garcia admires what they have done, but insists that is not the sole reason she wanted to pursue a job as an assistant. 

“I really wanted to set my own boundaries,” she said. 

So Garcia created her path by instructing big-bodied students to pave the way for others on the offensive side of the ball. 

The bond with blockers grew from her friendship with Tyler Armillay, a former standout lineman from Scranton, Pa. who went to play at Assumption and is now the offensive line coach at Endicott College.

Their conversations would often be about life on the line. Armillay taught Garcia the fundamentals of pass protection and moving defenders out of the way in the run game.

Garcia felt she could do the same with her students. 

Before that could happen, she needed acceptance. Garcia worried how a bunch of teenage boys would react to a female instructing them on the field. 

Those concerns were quickly soothed.

“Once the guys could see that she knew what she was talking about, they had a great relationship,” Moore said. 

Garcia gets her point across because she knows how to teach.

“I think they wanted someone that was nurturing enough to not crush their spirit but tough enough to make sure they didn’t mess around,” Garcia said.  

Her involvement is not restricted to drawing Xs and Os on a board. During spring practice, Garcia stood among her pupils as they jabbed and punched. She talked about body balance and counterstrikes and proper footwork.

Often, Garcia demonstrated by getting in the middle of piles. 

“Melia is not just some bystander,” Moore said. “At practice, she is in the dirt, in the grind. She’s hands-on all the way.”

Isaiah Cooper, a three-year starter who has played every position on the Spartans’ offensive line, was impressed. 

“She’s phenomenal,” Cooper said of Garcia. “You couldn’t even tell she was new. There were some things I didn’t know, that she knew. And she knows how to listen and find ways to relay the information in ways that we’ll understand.”

Her impact is felt off the field, too. 

Moore made Garcia an academic advisor. Players are required to turn in progress reports, complete with signatures from the teachers. Those who fail to do so are not allowed to practice. 

“The grades were a little rough for some, and now they’ve improved tremendously,” Cooper said. “Everything has gone a lot more smoothly as far as academics.”

And they should continue to improve with Garcia running study hall this fall.

“Melia has far exceeded my expectations,” Moore said. “In the classroom. On the field. She does it all.

“She is the real deal.”

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College Football

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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