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Pinellas County top 10 football rankings

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No more waiting or wondering when the season will begin. After a delayed start, football is back with most Pinellas County public and private schools kicking off the regular season on Thursday or Friday. That also means it is time for rankings. Here is the first top 10 of the season.

1. Lakewood

Last season: 12-1 (lost in state semifinals)

Up next: vs. Gibbs

The Spartans were the only area team to go undefeated in the regular season last season. They also came darn close to being the lone local program to advance to a title game, losing 9-7 to eventual Class 4A state champion Miami Booker T. Washington in the state semifinals. There were some holes to fill in the lineup, particularly in the interior of the defense with county defensive player of the year Andarius Wilson and Illinois freshman Tre’von Riggins both graduating. Jaden Ledbetter will help anchor the line. The linebacking corps, led by Pittsburgh commit Derrveron Maxwell-Black and Division I-A prospect Cortez McKenzie, who combined for 17 sacks last season. And don’t forget about Aumhryaun Brown, who can drop back in coverage or rush from the edge. On offense, the biggest question was who would replace dual-threat quarterback Greg Spann II, now a freshman at Illinois. Lakewood solved that problem with the addition of Jack Smitherman, a strong-armed senior who transferred from Miami Edison. Artez Hooker, a Buffalo commit, will be among the top receiving targets. 

2. Clearwater

Last season: 9-3 (lost in region semifinals)

Up next: at Jesuit

Tornadoes coach Don Mesick said this has the potential to be one of the best teams he has ever had. The talent is certainly there. The interior of the defensive line is among the area’s best with Division I-A recruit Tim Williams and August Salvati manning the middle. Demetrius Garland, another major prospect, headlines a solid linebacking corps. Jhaylen Murray and Leon Williams lead the secondary. On offense, Countryside transfer Kahmren Simpkins takes over at quarterback for Rent Montie, now at Lafayette. The receiving corps is deep, led by USF commit Cardrece Mobley, and David James. Mesick raves about the talent of running back Marquvion Jeter, who can do a little bit of everything.  Aaron Sanez anchors the offensive line.

3. Clearwater Academy

Last season: 8-2 (independent)

Up next: at Brentwood Academy (Tenn.)

The Knights are ranked 117th nationally, highest among Pinellas County teams. The loft MaxPreps status stems from a roster full of Division I-A talent. Quarterback Luca Stanzani, a junior, has already thrown for more than 9,000 yards in his high school career. But Stanzani does not have to do it all. He can hand off to Brandon Barrow, a Stanford commit. The offensive line, led by Rutgers recruit Albert Reese and Admiral Farragut transfer Percy Speights, is huge, averaging nearly 320 pounds per starter. Defensively, Clearwater Academy had to replace the bulk of the starters line who are now in college. Defensive back Shakespeare Louis is a captain on that side of the ball. 

Boca Ciega's Chris Phillips
Boca Ciega’s Chris Phillips

4. Boca Ciega

Last season: 6-5 (lost in region quarterfinals)

Up next: at Tarpon Springs (Thursday)

The Pirates have been the verge of a postseason breakthrough. Two years ago, they missed out on a wild card spot despite going 7-3 and made it last year as an at-large team. The offense has the potential to be dynamic thanks to the pieces still in place. Quarterback Taffrey Peterman returns, as does electric running back Chris Phillips, who might be the best player in the county. The passing game got a boost with the addition of Desean Henry, who transferred from St. Petersburg Catholic. He will team with Shurod Clark to form an explosive receiving duo. Evan Graham, a linebacker who has already committed to Georgia State, and Mikal Sanders, who had seven interceptions last season, lead the defense.   

5. Calvary Christian

Last season: 8-3 (lost in region quarterfinals)

Up next: at Carrollwood Day

This might be the most talented team in school history. The two biggest playmakers on offense, running back Kai Martin (1,000 yard rusher) and receiver Richie Ilarraza (Howard commit), both return. They’ll make life easier for quarterback Brandon Marcsisson, who takes over for Harold Cook, now a freshman at Shorter. The line is led by TJ Demas and Preston Cushman, who transferred from Northside Christian. There also were some nice additions defensively with Makkah and Melvin Jordan both transferring from IMG Academy . They join a ballhawking group that includes linebacker Isaiah Washburn, as well as London Hall and Carlos Quarles, who each had three interceptions last season.  

6. East Lake

Last season: 6-5 (lost in region quarterfinals)

Up next: vs. Sarasota Riverview

Matt Trotto, who threw for 2,295 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, graduated. The Eagles are going with a committee of quarterbacks to replace him. Jake Bechtel, Mark Brady and Aidan MacLean will all see playing time in Friday’s opener against Sarasota Riverview. The running game will be done by committee, too. Austin Huff is the lone returning starter on an offensive line that was fortified with the addition of Trent Ramsey, a four-star prospect who came from Arizona at the beginning of the year. On defense, Dylan Rosiek, an Illinois commit, and Lane Hansen, younger brother of Illini star Jake Hansen, form a solid linebacking duo. Ryan Cunnigham and Terry Handsel are the biggest playmakers in the secondary.   

7. Clearwater Central Catholic

Last season: 10-4 (lost in state semifinals)

Up next: at Tampa Catholic

To make their eighth state semifinal appearance in the past nine years, the Marauders will get over some growing pains — quickly. After all, Clearwater Central Catholic had 20 players graduate from last year’s team, including 2,000 yard rusher Jordan Niles and most of the offensive linemen who cleared those rushing lanes. Marauders coach Chris Harvey said he could more than 15 sophomores starting this year. The strategy will change, too, with CCC taking to the air more to take advantage of the playmaking ability of receivers Johntavious Bonner, Jarquez Green and Kevary Jenkins. The Marauders are still deciding on who will be throwing the ball to that trio. Anthony Colandrea and Bryson Martin, a Plant transfer, are the leading candidates. Both will play until someone emerges as the leader, Harvey said. 

8. Largo

Last season: 8-4 (lost in region semifinals)

Up next: vs. Pinellas Park

Several starters graduated, including the Packers’ top two linebackers, Jayion McCluster (FSU) and AJ Mathis (FIU). The Gurney twins, Garrett and Connor, both started as outside linebackers last season and will be counted on to be leaders on that side of the ball. The two are also versatile enough to play multiple positions. Garrett spent time at quarterback last season and Connor can fill in at running back. There are still plenty of McClusters left at Largo. Zayvion, a sophomore, is the latest star from the Packers most recognizable football family. Last year, Zayvion had 73 tackles, two interceptions and a sack as a defensive back. 

9. Pinellas Park

Last season: 6-5 (lost in region quarterfinals)

Up next: at Largo

The biggest task this offseason was finding a replacement for Lawrance Toafili, the electrifying running back who is drawing rave reviews as a freshman at Florida State. This will be a group effort with as many as four backs — Columbus Holston, Eric Jackson, Aaron Mezei and Cameron Kier — sharing the load. Paving the way up front will be Matthew Rotkis, the top returning lineman. Brandon Brearley is back at quarterback. The linebacking unit has as many as six guys who can start. The top returning tackler from that group is Malachi McCalip. The special teams are solid, led by kicker Robert Gunn, ranked tops in the nation for his age group. 

10. Countryside

Last season: 6-5 (lost in region quarterfinals)

Up next: vs. Hollins (Thursday)

The Cougars took some hits from graduation and a few defections. But they still have enough to make another playoff run. Running back Zyterius Watts and receiver Leroy Lopez are the top returning skill players. Lopez is a true deep threat. He set the school record for longest touchdown reception with a 94-yarder last season and also has scores that went for 79, 85 and 89 yards last season. The line is led by David Tibbs, a 6-foot-7, 290 pound tackle who gained 20 pounds in the offseason. Carson Burbee, a tight end, also is great as a run blocker. On defense, the Cougars’ top returner is linebacker Matt Sattinger, a three-year starter who had 123 tackles last season. Colin Kroeger is an explosive defensive end who has an offer from Ohio Wesleyan. 

On the bubble

Hollins, Northeast

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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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