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Prime time super seven: football rankings for Pasco County

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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. Mitchell (0-0)

Up next: vs. Pinellas Park 

Last spot: No. 1

The Mustangs were supposed to start their season against Land O’ Lakes. That did not happen. The Gators were dealing with COVID-related issues and had to quarantine their junior varsity and varsity teams. Mitchell tried finding another game on short notice but had no luck. Instead, the Mustangs used the extra time to prepare for Friday’s game against Pinellas Park. There’s plenty of motivation, too, especially after the Patriots handed Mitchell its only Class 7A, District 9 loss a year ago.  Ezra Brennaen threw for 205 and a touchdown in that last meeting. The biggest key will be how well the Mustangs do in stopping the run, particularly after the Patriots racked up more than 400 yards on the ground last season.  

2. Wiregrass Ranch (1-0)

Up next: vs. CCC

Last spot: No. 2 

Kenneth Walker rushed for 135 yards and scored twice on just carries in a 50-10 rout over St. Petersburg in the opener. In all, six players reached the end zone. The defense also did its part, registering five sacks (two each by Nate Kidd and Steven Prevaux) and picking off three passes. The Bulls were able to add a game against Clearwater Central Catholic this week, the team they have faced in the kickoff classic the past three seasons. 

3. River Ridge (1-0)

Up next: Tarpon Springs 

Last spot: No. 3

The Royal Knights opened with their season with a 13-0 win over Fivay. In the last three meetings, River Ridge has outscored the Falcons by a combined 113-0. Not only was it  the third straight shutout in the series, but it marked the 14th time since 2017 the Royal Knights have blanked an opponent. That trend could continue against Tarpon Springs. After all the Royal Knights won last year’s meeting 58-0. 

4. Wesley Chapel (1-0)

Up next: vs. Anclote (Oct. 2)

Last spot: Unranked

The Wildcats beat Sunlake 20-13 in the opener, snapping a two-game losing streak in the series. Nehemiah Morgan did a little bit of everything for Wesley Chapel, finishing with 70 yards receiving, 67 passing and coming up with an interception on defense that helped seal the win. This week, the Wildcats were supposed to play Zephyrhills but the game was cancelled after a Bulldogs player tested positive for coronavirus. Now, Wesley Chapel has three weeks to prepare for its next game against Anclote on Oct. 2.

5. Zephyrhills (0-0)

Up next: vs. Tampa Catholic (Sept. 25)

Last spot: No. 5

The Bulldogs are currently playing the waiting game after a player tested for coronavirus two weeks ago. The bulk of the players on varsity are quarantining due to guidelines put in place by the CDC and the county health department. That meant Zephyrhills had to cancel its first two games. The Bulldogs will now open their season on Sept. 25 against Tampa Catholic.

6. Pasco (0-1)

Up next: at Cypress Creek 

Last spot: No. 4

The Pirates had a rough start to the season, losing 33-0 to Auburndale. One bright spot for Pasco was the play of linebacker Gabriel Barnes, who had a team-high 11 tackles and recorded two of the Pirates’ five sacks. Pasco will try to bounce back this week against Cypress Creek.   

7. Cypress Creek (1-0)

Up next: vs. Pasco

Last spot: Unranked

The Coyotes, who made the playoffs for the first time a year ago, continued their success with a 28-17 win over Osceola in the season opener. Owen Walls was efficient at quarterback, completing 13 of his 21 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. On defense, Joseph Wilhelm came up with the big plays, picking off two passes. 

On the bubble

Hudson (1-0), Fivay (0-1), Zephyrhills Christian (1-1), Sunlake (0-1)

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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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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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