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Hillsborough County top 15 football rankings

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With no kickoff classics, the opening week of the season was the first time coaches were able to evaluate where their programs stood in a game situation since last season. Some were still figuring out quarterback competitions. Others are still trying to put the right pieces in place. It is still a work in progress. But we also have a better understanding of how dominant some teams can be. Here are the rankings after the first week.

1. Gaither (1-0)

Up next: vs. Tampa Bay Tech (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 2

The Cowboys could have easily been the top-ranked team going into the season. They moved into the No. 1 spot after an efficient performance against rival Chamberlain. Kiael Kelly threw for 192 yards and accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing). Ricky Parks had 80 yards rushing and ran for two scores. And the defense, led by linebacker Nick Bartalo (13 tackles, four sacks), did not allow a point (the Chiefs’ lone score came on a recovered fumble in the end zone). This week’s game is an even tougher test against Tampa Bay Tech and its high-powered passing game.  

2. Bloomingdale (1-0)

Up next: at Tampa Bay Tech (Sept. 25)

Last spot: No. 3

The top spot is debatable. The Bulls can certainly claim it, especially after knocking off area powerhouse Armwood 15-14 in the season opener. With the offense struggling, Bloomingdale came through with big plays on defense and special teams to pull out the win. Jamarion Neal recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and Philip Riley, a Notre Dame commit, returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Bloomingdale’s scheduled game against Durant this week was moved to Oct. 9. That gives the Bulls another week to prepare for their Sept. 25 matchup against Tampa Bay Tech. 

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3. Armwood (0-1)

Up next: vs. Plant (Thursday night Identity Tampa Bay Game of the Week)

Last spot: No. 1 

The season opener was a frustrating one for the Hawks. Chris Davis had four sacks to lead a ferocious front. Cam’Ron Ransom threw for a pair of touchdowns. But it was not enough. Two critical plays — an errant snap that sailed into the end zone and kickoff return for a score — were the difference in Armwood’s 15-14 loss to Bloomingdale. There is no need to panic with a loss. The Hawks know this. The same thing happened in 2018. After a loss in the opener that season, Arwmood went on to win 13 straight to reach the state semifinals. On Thursday, the Hawks will look to get back on track against rival Plant. 

4.  Jesuit (2-0)

Up next: at Sarasota Booker

Last spot: No. 4 

Down 21-14 entering the fourth quarter, the Tigers rallied with three scores to beat Clearwater 35-21. Joe Pesansky threw for three touchdowns, all going to Carter French. The senior quarterback also ran for another. On defense, Aiden Clark returned an interception for a touchdown to round out the scoring and Todd Bowles had an interception to seal the win. Jesuit has a good shot to stay undefeated against Sarasota Booker, which is playing for the first time this season. 

5. Tampa Bay Tech (1-0)

Up next: at Gaither (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 5 

The Titans had nearly 500 yards of offense in a 34-10 win over defending Class 8A state semifinalist Steinbrenner. David Wright threw for 199 yards and a touchdown. Rod Gainey, already a freshman sensation, had 130 yards on the ground and ran for a score. And Jamari Gassett, a Buffalo commit, had two receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown and returned a punt for another score.The offense will be put to the test against Gaither in one of the best matchups this week. 

6. Plant City (1-0)

Up next: vs. Bradenton Manatee (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 6

The script was perfect for an opener. Against Riverview, the Raiders jumped out to a commanding lead and cruised to a 44-7 victory. Nearly everyone on offense contributed in helping Plant City rack up 529 yards. All three quarterbacks played. Seven players had at least one rushing attempt. And six receivers had at least one catch. Mario Williams, an Oklahoma commit, did the most damage, scoring twice on receptions, throwing for another touchdown and accounting for a pair of 2-point conversions. 

7. Tampa Catholic (2-0)

Up next: vs. Land O’ Lakes

Last spot: No. 7

The Crusaders snapped a five-game losing to one of their fiercest rivals, beating Clearwater Central Catholic 35-0 to remain undefeated. Antoine Hill ran for 105 yards and scored once on the ground. AJ Williams showed off his big-play potential with a pair of long touchdowns (71 yard reception and 55 yard punt return). And the defense recorded seven sacks and picked off two passes in the shutout. 

8. Berkeley Prep (0-0)

Up next: at Jesuit (Sept. 25)

Last spot: No. 8

The Buccaneers started practicing three weeks ago for what will be an abbreviated season. They picked up a game against Jesuit on Sept. 25, which will now serve as the opener. The matchup also marks the first time Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao will face the Tigers since his departure in 2002. 

9. Newsome (1-0)

Up next: vs. Steinbrenner (Sept. 25)

Last spot: No. 11

As expected, the Wolves had to slug it out in a low-scoring, closely contested game against rival Durant in the opener. It took overtime before the outcome was decided. The Wolves’ Matthew Wingo ended it, scoring on his only carry for a 13-10 victory. In all, Newsome ran for 183 yards. The Wolves were supposed to play Lennard on Thursday but the game was pushed back to Oct. 9 because of a COVID-related issue. Now, Newsome has two weeks to prepare for Steinbrenner.   

10. Chamberlain (0-1)

Up next: vs. Bradenton Bayshore (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 9

Last weekend’s opener was a tough one against Gaither’s stacked roster. The Chiefs failed to score a touchdown on offense, marking the second time that has happened in the past three meetings. Chamberlain should be able to turn things around this week against Bradenton Bayshore. 

11. Steinbrenner (0-1)

Up next: at Alonso (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 10

After winning 12 straight regular season games from 2018-19, the Warriors have now lost two straight, a streak that dates back to last year’s regular season finale. There were some bright spots in last week’s 34-10 loss to Tampa Bay Tech. Deon Silas, an Iowa State commit, had 203 all-purpose yards. And linebacker Austin Brannen recorded 13 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Steinbrenner will try to even its record against Alonso on Thursday. 

12. Hillsborough (0-0)

Up next: at Armwood (Sept. 25)

Last spot: No. 12

The Terriers have to wait another week before starting their regular season with a tough matchup against Armwood. This gives Hillsborough three full weeks to prepare for the Hawks.

13. Jefferson (0-0)

Up next: at Middleton (Thursday)

Last week: No. 13 

The Dragons had their scheduled opener pushed back to the final week of the regular season. They now travel to Middleton to open their season. 

14. Robinson (1-0)

Up next: at Gibbs

Last week: No. 15

The Parks brothers put on a show in a season-opening 46-0 victory over Brandon. Rickeem, the quarterback, threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more. Arkese, a freshman running back, had a nice high school debut, rushing for 95 yards and scoring once. The Knights are in a good spot with their next three games all coming against teams that had a losing record last season. 

15. Lennard (1-0)

Up next: vs. Alonso (Sept. 25)

Last week: Unranked

Quarterback Gavin Henley threw for 247 yards and Amarie Jones returned an interception for a touchdown to help the Longhorns knock off Plant 29-22 in the season opener. With its game against Newsome pushed back to Oct. 9, Lennard will spend this week getting ready for Alonso on Sept. 25. 

On the bubble

Carrollwood Day (1-1), East Bay (1-0), Wharton (1-0), Sumner (1-0), Cambridge Christian (2-0).  

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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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