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Pinellas County top 10 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. Lakewood (1-0)

Up next: vs. Boca Ciega (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 1

There were some new faces on defense, particularly on the line. No matter. The results were the same. Another game. Another shutout. The Spartans opened their season with a 42-0 rout over rival Gibbs, spoiling the debut for Gladiators coach Louis Murphy Jr., who was returning to his alma mater. It marked the seventh time Lakewood has blanked an opponent in the past two seasons. On Thursday, the Spartans face another Boca Ciega, another team they shut out a year ago. The rematch could present more of a challenge, especially with all the offensive weapons the Pirates have returning. 

2. Clearwater (0-1)

Up next: vs. Largo (Identity Tampa Bay Game of the Week)

Last spot: No. 2

For three quarters, the Tornadoes were in control in their opener against Jesuit. Kamrhen Simpkins threw for two touchdown passes. August Salvati had three sacks on defense. And Clearwater had the lead, 21-14. In the fourth quarter, the Tornadoes watched their lead evaporate as the Tigers came roaring back to win, 35-21. It’s hard to drop the Tornadoes considering they had a defending state semifinalist on the ropes before falling. This week, Clearwater will try to regroup against Largo and exact some revenge for a loss to its rival a year ago. 

3. Clearwater Academy (0-1)

Up next: at Mosley

Last spot: No. 3 

The Knights have a collection of talented International players, many hailing from Canada. Their star-studded roster has got the attention of pollsters. Entering the season, Clearwater Academy was ranked 125th nationally, tops among Pinellas County programs. To find quality opponents, the Knights have to travel throughout the county. In the opener, they went to Tennessee to take on powerhouse Brentwood Academy. It was a rough start. Clearwater Academy lost 34-18 but stayed put in the rankings because of the quality of the opponent.One of the bright spots in the opener was Dylan Djete, who had eight receptions for 262 yards and three touchdowns.  

4. Boca Ciega (0-0)

Up next: at Lakewood (Thursday)

Last spot: No. 4

The Pirates drove to Tarpon Springs for last week’s opener only to turn around once they got there because of poor field conditions. The game was unable to be rescheduled so Boca Ciega focused on Lakewood in what is now its opener. To reverse last year’s outcome (a 35-0 loss), the Pirates will need more from their offensive playmakers, nearly all of whom return. The experience of quarterback Taffrey Peterman and running back Chris Phillips should make this one more competitive. 

5. Calvary Christian (1-0)

Up next: vs. Seffner Christian

Last spot: No. 5

Last week’s opener was exactly what the Warriors wanted: a test. Carrollwood Day has a roster full of high-profile transfers, enough to make the Patriots a serious state title contender in Class 2A. But the Warriors have playmakers of their own. Makkah Jordan and Richie Ilarraza made the biggest impact. Jordan, a Georgia State commit, returned a punt for a touchdown. And Ilarraza, a Howard recruit, caught a touchdown pass for what turned out to be the game-winning score in a 16-7 victory. 

6. Pinellas Park (1-0)

Up next: at Mitchell

Last spot: No. 9 

For the second straight season, the Patriots knocked off Largo. Jordan Jimenez had a strip sack and recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown that provided the spark Pinellas Park needed in a 31-14 season-opening victory. Another challenge awaits this week with a matchup against defending district champion Mitchell. Last year, the Patriots handed the Mustangs their only district loss. 

7. East Lake (0-1)

Up next: at Sunlake

Last spot: No. 6

The Eagles went from playing Palm Harbor University in last week’s opener to facing Sarasota Riverview after a Hurricanes player tested positive for coronavirus. The new matchup was a difficult one. East Lake lost 40-7. One of the bright spots was the play of defensive back Ryan Cunnigham, who had seven tackles and an interception. The Eagles will try to bounce back this week against Sunlake. 

8. Countryside (1-0)

Up next: vs. Osceola

Last spot: No. 10

Steady rain made traction tough for the Cougars’ opener against Dixie Hollins. Still, Countryside found enough footing in the ground game to rush for more than 200 yards. Garrett Rodriguez and Gabe Olds, who alternated at quarterback for the Cougars, each scored a rushing touchdown. The 16-12 win helped Countryside exact revenge for a loss to the Royals last year. 

9. Clearwater Central Catholic (0-1)

Up next: at Wiregrass Ranch

Last spot: No. 7

With so many sophomores in the lineup, growing pains were to be expected. That was evident in a 35-0 season-opening loss to Tampa Catholic. It was the first time CCC had lost to its rival in the past five meetings. To get back on track the Marauders have to get more production on offense, especially after gaining just 81 total yards against the Crusaders. It does not get any easier with a matchup against Wiregrass Ranch on Friday. 

10. Largo (0-1)

Up next: at Clearwater (Identity Tampa Bay Game of the Week)

Last spot: No. 8

The two-time defending district champions still have plenty to work on after losing to Pinellas Park in the season opener. One thing Largo did find is a featured back. Troy Holmes Jr. rushed for more than 200 yards and scored twice against the Patriots. The ground game will need to be just as productive against rival Clearwater this week. 

On the bubble

Seminole (1-0), Hollins (0-1) 

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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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