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Pasco County super seven

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

1. Mitchell

Last year: 10-2 (lost in region semifinals)

Up next: vs. Pinellas Park (Sept. 18)

Andy Schmitz has guided the Mustangs to the playoffs every year since taking over in 2014, including five straight district titles in that span. That postseason streak should continue with perhaps the fastest and most complete team Mitchell has had during this recent run. But the Mustangs will have to wait until getting started. This week’s opener against Land O’ Lakes was cancelled after the Gators’ varsity and junior varsity teams went through quarantine due to a positive coronavirus test. On offense, Mitchell returns quarterback Evan Brennan (2,301 yards, 31 touchdowns last season) and two of his top receivers, Johnny Fairbank (697 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Ronnie Fiumara (424 yards, six touchdowns). The Mustangs also added Maguire Anderson, who transferred from Sunlake and recently picked up an offer from Valparaiso. Mitchell’s opportunistic defense got even better in the offseason with the addition of Cole Castro, who transferred from River Ridge. Castro had 10 interceptions last season and was named the Sunshine Athletic Conference’s Western Division defensive player of the year. With Castro, the secondary has four starters — Nic Fairbank, Khamari Smith and Garnell Wilds are the others — who had a combined 21 interceptions a year ago. And that total does include linebacker Johnny Fairbank’s’ seven picks. 

2. Wiregrass Ranch

Last year: 7-4 (lost in region quarterfinals)

Up next: at St. Petersburg

There should really be a 1A and 1B at the top of the rankings. That’s how even the Bulls are with Mitchell and the debate over which team is the likely will not be settled until the two square off on Oct. 9 in the most anticipated matchup in Pasco County this season. Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht, who threw for 1,985 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first full season as starter, has gotten the attention of colleges. In the offseason, the three-star prospect picked up offers from five schools, including FIU, Iowa State, Toledo and Wake Forest. Though the Bulls top two receivers graduated, they do return receiver Broden Guirl and tight end Gabe Thompson, who has committed to Army. On defense, the biggest loss was Dylan Ridolph, who set nearly every school record for sacks and is now playing at Catawba. There still are some playmakers left, most notably defensive back Grady Clower (three interceptions last season) and linebacker Craig Kailimai. Kicker Adam Mihalek is among the best in the area. 

3. River Ridge

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

Up next: at Fivay

The loss of Cole Castro, now at Mitchell, hurt because the versatile playmaker contributed on both sides of the ball. But the Royal Knights still have talent to win another district title. Trenton Hawks is back at quarterback and should get plenty of protection from a veteran offensive line that includes Robby Rinaldi and Alex Storey. The defense is led by linebackers Connor Finer and Aidan Benjamin and defensive back Aaron Wyman. 

4. Pasco

Last year: 4-6

Up next: at Auburndale 

The Pirates closed out last season with two straight wins, including a huge 27-9 victory over bitter rival Zephyrhills in the finale. Devin Jernigan returns at quarterback. Graduation took away a lot of the production at the other skill positions. JaBrounze Cooley, a receiver, and running backs Amir Burgess and Savion Spaights, will be counted to be go-to guys. Burgess, who had a team-leading 96 tackles last season, leads the linebacking crew once again. On the edge, watch out for Ja’bari Mention, who had three sacks last season. 

5. Zephyrhills

Last season: 5-5

Up next: at Tampa Catholic (Sept. 25)

The Bulldogs had to endure some setbacks. A player tested positive for coronavirus last week, forcing most of the team to quarantine. Because of that, Zephyrhills had to cancel its first two games of the season and likely will have just six games on the schedule. Once the Bulldogs play on Sept. 25, they can lean on a trio of skill players — quarterback Timothy Jackson, running back Zyre Roundtree and receiver Tre Gallimore — for offensive production. Gallimore, who had four interceptions last season, is part of an opportunistic defense that includes Jaylin Thomas. Up front, look for Maguire Neal (13 sacks last season) to apply the pressure. 

6. Fivay

Last season: 7-3

Up next: at River Ridge

After winning a combined three games in his first two seasons, Falcons coach Matt Durchik started seeing results with what was being built. Fivay won four games in 2018 and seven last year. That 7-3 record a year was the program’s first winning season since 2012. The foundation still is there for continued success. On offense, it starts with the running game with two productive backs, Austin Blanford and Angel Gonzalez-Gordon both returning. The defense is led by defensive back Melvin Rivera, who had 112 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception last season. 

7. Sunlake

Last season: 4-6

Up next: at Wesley Chapel

The Seahawks went through some growing pains under Trey Burdick, who became just the program’s second coach last year when he took over the legendary Bill Browning. The result was the team’s fourth straight season going 4-6. Sunlake is equipped to take the next step, especially in the passing game with the return of quarterback Kevin Spillane. Defensively, the Seahawks graduated their top three leading tacklers. The top returner is linebacker Mitch Hammond. 

On the bubble

Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills Christian 

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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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Football

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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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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