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Football team preview: Tampa Catholic



Tampa Catholic

At a glance

Coach: Jeris McIntyre (third season)

Class: 4A, Region 3

Last season: 7-6 (lost in region final)

Key players: ATH Lewis Carter, So.; ATH Raphael Ekechi, Sr.; OL/DL Cole Essek, Sr.; RB Antoine Hill, So.;OL/DL Jaden Sandlin, Sr.; OL/DL Jordan Sandlin, Sr.;  WR/DB Jamie Smiley, Jr.; DB/WR DD Snyder, Sr.; QB Xavione Washington, So.  LB Edward Zanato, Sr.


Sept.4 vs. IMG White

Sept. 11 vs. Tampa Catholic

Sept. 18 vs. Land O’ Lakes

Sept. 25 at Zephyrhills

Oct. 2 vs. Berkeley Prep

Oct. 9 Bye

Oct. 16 at Winter Haven

Oct. 23 Bye

Oct. 30 at Lakeland George Jenkins

Nov. 6 vs. Jesuit

Things to know

The next step

Since returning to his alma mater in 2018, Jeris McIntyre has made significant strides with the program. Two years ago, Tampa Catholic reached the Class 3A region semifinals. Last year, the Crusaders advanced to the Class 4A region final. The program appears poised to take the next step with a roster that is perhaps the most talented in McIntyre’s three seasons. The only real question marks going into the offseason were finding replacements for quarterback Dylan McCain and receiver Marcellus Crutchfield, now at Oklahoma. McClain’s understudy, Xavier Washington, will take over under center. Replacing Crutchfield will be done by committee with Jamie Smiley, AJ Williams, Jacoreyus Demps and Derek Mitchell all competing to be the go-to guy in the passing game. The running game is strong with Antoine Hill, a 1,000 rusher last season, returning. Others who will get work include Lewis Carter and KJ Covington. 

Loads of linemen

If there’s one thing Tampa Catholic has an abundance of is offensive linemen. The Sandlin twins, Jaden (6-foot6, 260 pounds) and Jordan (6-6, 290), both of whom have already committed to Florida Atlantic, anchor that group. The other starters include Mike Brown (6-1, 285), Jaiden Giovenco (6-4, 315) and Chris Williams (6-4, 300). Some of the reserves could even start and will be vying for playing time. They include Cole Essek (6-6, 255), an Appalachian State commit whose versatile enough to play at tight end and on the defensive line, and Eddie Pierre-Louis (6-3, 290), whose older brother is Richard Gouriage, the former Cambridge Christian standout who now starts on the offensive line at Florida. 

De-fense! De-fense!

Last year, the defense came together, posting three shutouts and allowing an average of 13 points per game. Several starters return from that unit, including Edward Zanato, who led the team in tackles last season with 123. The top guy in the secondary is DD Snyder, who has already committed to Illinois.  

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Tampa Bay Tech’s Rod Gainey transfers to IMG Academy



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



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



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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