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The Hillsborough County top 15 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 Hillsborough County public and private schools kicking off the regular season on Friday. That also means it is time for rankings. Here is the first top 10 of the season.

1. Armwood

Last season: 12-2 (lost in state semifinals)

Up next: at Bloomingdale

The Hawks are seventh in the state and 44th in the nation according to MaxPreps, both tops among area programs. Sure, Armwood lost several key starters, most notably on defense with lineman Clyde Pinder Jr. (North Carolina) and defensive backs De’Kwan Hughes (Marshall), Jalil Core (Florida A&M) and Aamaris Brown (Indiana) all off to college. But the Hawks just reload rather than rebuild. The defense still is capable of being dominant with Desmond Watson, a Florida commit, anchoring the line and Noah Biglow, a Pittsburgh recruit, leading a revamped secondary that includes Plant transfer Zaequan Gilliespy. On offense, quarterback Cam’Ron Ransom is poised to have his best season yet. His target is Charles Montgomery Jr., a Florida commit who led the team in receiving last season. James Smiley takes over the rushing load from Eric Wilson, who graduated.  

2. Gaither

Last season: 12-2 (lost in state semifinals)

Up next: at Chamberlain

The Cowboys have been vocal in declaring themselves the best team in Hillsborough County. They certainly are in the conversation, especially given how much star power they have on the roster. Eight players have already made their college commitment. Five of those are Division I-A recruits — quarterback Kiael Kelly (Ball State), offensive lineman Andrew Kilfoyl (USF), defensive back Jordan Oladokun (Iowa), running back Ricky Parks (Utah) and defensive back Jordan Young (Florida). Kelly, Parks and Young all came from Jesuit and help fill key holes in the lineup. Kelly, who replaces Tony Bartalo at quarterback, has plenty of targets with Drelin Pittman and Bethune Cookman commit Jayden Mendez both returning. Oladokun also will spend time at receiver. On defense, the line is ferocious, led by all-state and ESPN top 300 selection Mario Eugenio. Others up front include Tennessee State commit Asa Van Buren, Tawfiq Thomas and Jon Wallace. Oladokun and Young will team with Kobe McCloud and Jean Duclos in a very deep and talented secondary. Gaither coach Kirk Karsen said Willie Jackson is the most versatile player on defense and could start at all 11 positions. 

3. Bloomingdale

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

Up next: vs. Armwood

Bulls coach Jake Coulson said this could be a special season. His optimism stems from the progress he made since taking over the program a year ago . Bloomingdale’s three losses last season were to Lakeland and Armwood, two of the best programs in the state. And the region final loss to the Hawks was just by 11 points. In the offseason, the passing game got a significant jolt with the addition of quarterback Tre Simmons from Jefferson and receiver Agiye Hall, an Alabama commit who played at Armwood the past two seasons. Stazion Gage, a multidimensional force who quarterbacked Riverview to a playoff berth last season, transferred in and likely will team with Hall to form an electrifying receiving pair. Coulson raves about the defense, which was already stellar last season. Three starters in the secondary have already committed to colleges — Britton Pascoe (North Dakota State), Philip Riley (Notre Dame) and Jayden Williams (FAU). Isaiah Doby, who had more than 100 tackles last season, came over from Riverview to round out the defensive backfield. The inside linebackers are among the area’s best with Jamarion Neal and Wa’myron Howard both returning.   

4. Jesuit (1-0)

Last week: d. Fort Myers Bishop Verot 28-21 

Up next: vs. Clearwater

The Tigers got off to a strong start, jumping out to a big lead then holding on to beat Bishop Verot 28-21 in the season opener. Joe Pesansky, a transfer from Virginia, took over as the starting quarterback and completed 14 of his 21 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns. Jaydn Girard caught three of those passes, two going for touchdowns, and finished with 120 yards. In the fourth quarter, Jesuit’s offensive line, led by Trequan Alexander, paved the way on a few clock-eating drives. Joquez Smith was the main benefactor, rushing for 90 yards on 15 carries and scoring once. On defense, Todd Bowles and Aiden Clark each picked off passes. 

5. Tampa Bay Tech 

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

Up next: at Steinbrenner

In last year’s region semifinals, the Titans gave powerhouse Lakeland all it could handle before losing 37-30. That performance did wonders for Tampa Bay Tech, which is aiming for more than just its seventh straight playoff appearance. A deep playoff run is possible thanks to a passing game that will be among the area’s best. David Wright, who threw for 2,318 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, returns for his senior season. There are plenty of weapons. Greg Gaines, a junior receiver, is a four-star prospect according to the 247 Sports composite list. Jamari Gassett, who transferred from Jefferson, has already committed to Buffalo. And don’t forget about Rod Gainer, a freshman who should have an immediate impact as a runner and receiver. Tyler Bennett anchors the offensive line. Henry Hughes, a Rutgers commit, does the same on the other side of the ball. Linebacker Matthew Myles and defensive back Steven Parker have multiple college offers.  

6. Plant City

Last season: 5-5

Up next: at Riverview

After starting 2-5 a year ago, the Raiders reeled off three straight wins to carry some momentum into the offseason. The high hopes also have to do with a roster filled with talent. Mario Williams, an Oklahoma commit, is the top receiver in the nation according to ESPN. Opposing defenders will have to pay attention to more than just Williams. The Raiders have two other dependable targets, Reagan Ealy and Aramoni Rhone, a transfer from Orlando Jones. The job of getting the ball to that trio belongs to Nick Felice, a transfer from Newsome who won the starting quarterback job. Romello Jones will handle the bulk of the rushing load. Up front, Plant City has tremendous size with Josiah Lancaster (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) and Andrew Walden (6-6, 330) anchoring the right side of the line. Though the Raiders graduated their top four tacklers, there are solid returning starters, including linebacker Todd Miller, safeties Cole Highsmith and Austin Albright and cornerback Ian Jolly. 

7. Tampa Catholic (1-0)

Last week: d. IMG White 43-7

Up next: vs. Clearwater Central Catholic

The Crusaders are set at quarterback with Xavione Washington. The sophomore, who last season as the understudy to Dylan McClain, made the most of his limited opportunities in the opener, going 6-of-8 for 124 yards and a touchdown in the air and running for 57 yards and scoring on both of his carries. The Crusaders made it look easy on the ground, averaging 11 yards per carry while running behind a beefy line, led by the Sandlin twins, Jordan and Jaden, who both have committed to FAU. Lewis Carter had tackles and a sack and Adrian Ramsey picked off a pass to lead Tampa Catholic’s defense. 

8. Berkeley Prep

Last season: 8-2 (lost in region semifinals)

Up next: at Jesuit (Sept. 25)

Berkeley Prep’s offense has the key pieces in place to be potent. Gavin Rupp, who has offers from East Tennessee State, Gardner-Webb and Tennessee-Martin, returns at quarterback for his senior season. He can hand off to a pair of dynamic junior running backs, Travis Bates and Xavier Townsend. Or Rupp can drop back and throw to his top deep threat, RJ Garcia II, a senior who has already committed to Kansas State.  Though the Buccaneers return nearly skill player, there still is  work to be done on the offensive line, which lost several starters, including Zach Perkins, now at Maryland.  The biggest loss on defensive was Jaylen Harrell, a linebacker who is now at Michigan. Austin Dean, a Rutgers commit, can play on the line or at linebacker. So can Tre Reader. Their flexibility to play multiple positions will be key in filling in certain spots. James Kavouklis will help anchor the line and Damien Henderson, DJ Hooker and Henry Ferrelli will man the secondary.

9. Chamberlain 

Last season: 7-5 (lost in region final)

Up next: vs. Gaither

After an uneven regular season, the Chiefs put it together in the postseason last year, winning twice before falling to Jesuit in the region final. That late season push gave Chamberlain some much-needed momentum heading into the offseason. Offensively, the Chiefs will rely on Antony Guzman to once again power the running game. JT Anderson, Desman Hearns and Antonio Jamison are all versatile enough to play on both sides of the ball as receivers and defensive backs. Enzo Tedesco takes over at quarterback. The defense is led by lineman Deric Coley and defensive backs Jaylen Martin and Jalen McClendon. Chamberlain can usually win the field position battle thanks to the booming kickoffs and punts from Marcus Ashwood. 

10. Steinbrenner

Last season: 12-2 (lost in state semifinals)

Up next: vs. Tampa Bay Tech

The Warriors are coming off their best season in school history. To duplicate that state semifinal run, Steinbrenner has to replace a solid senior nucleus that brought the program to new heights. The biggest task is replacing quarterback Haden Carlson, who won the Guy Toph Award as the top player in Hillsborough County and is now at FIU. The competition to replace him still is going with four candidates — Bryce Lowe, Griff Wiltse, Josh Iglesias, Steven Werking and Ty Robinson — all vying to be the starter. They will have the luxury of handing off and throwing to Deon Silas, an Iowa State commit. Jett Law also is a dependable receiver. The defense has the most veterans with lineman Garet Cates, linebackers Austin Brannen, TJ Hubbell and defensive back Matthew Durrance all returning. 

11. Newsome

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

Up next: at Durant

The Wolves will stick with their earthbound approach on offense. After all, their run-oriented attack helped them reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012 last season. Jason Albritton, who ran for more than 1,400 yards and scored 14 touchdowns on the ground last season, returns as the featured back. He can run behind Thomas Heeps, the veteran among the offensive linemen. Max Paplin, a tight end, can help as a pass-catcher or blocker. Defensively, Newsome is led by linebacker Cade Huffman. The special teams are in good shape with Ryan Eckley handling the kicking chores. 

12. Hillsborough

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

Up next: at Armwood (Sept. 25)

The Terriers have as much talent as anyone, but the question is how much rust will they have to shake off after having to cancel their first two games because of a player testing positive for the coronavirus. The running game is a strength with Jordaan Bailey, Joseph Sipp Jr. and Erriyon Knighton all returning. Knighton has the nation’s fastest time in the 100 (10.29 seconds) and 200 (20.33) among high school athletes this year. Those trio of backs will rely on lineman Tyler Menard to clear paths.  

13. Jefferson 

Last season: 5-5

Up next: at Middleton

There have been so many setbacks the Dragons had to endure, from a slew of skill players transferring elsewhere to cancelling their opener after a player tested positive for coronavirus. Once Jefferson is able to play in two weeks, it can turn to its ground game for offensive production, especially with Jeremiah Burnett and Malik Mazion both returning. The passing game also is in good hands with Gage Wilcox, a Florida commit who caught 20 passes last year, seven going for touchdowns. 

14. Carrollwood Day (1-0)

Last week: d. Northside Christian 37-6

Up next: vs. Calvary Christian

The Patriots new arrivals all made big impacts in the opener. Tight ends Michael Trigg and Tony Livingston, who came over from Seffner Christian, each had touchdown receptions, along with freshman receiver Bredell Richardson. There is enough talent, most via transfers, that can help Carrollwood Day go from winless a year ago to serious state title contender. The Patriots will be tested this week when they host Calvary Christian. 

15. Robinson 

Last season: 3-7

Up next: at Brandon

Sure, the Knight went won only three games a year ago and finished the season on a five-game losing streak. But there is the potential for a big turnaround. Levi McAfee, who led the team in receiving yards (368) and in interceptions (seven), is back. So is quarterback Rickeem Parks, the younger brother of Gaither running back and Utah commit Ricky Parks. But it is the youngest of the Parks siblings who could have the biggest impact. Arkese, a freshman, was a youth league sensation and will be inserted as the starting tailback in Friday’s opener.

On the bubble

Sickles, Lennard, Riverview, East Bay, Wharton, Cambridge Christian

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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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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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