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Prime Time 10: Football rankings for Pinellas County

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Because of the abbreviated schedule, the midpoint of the season is fast approaching. By the end of this week, every Pinellas County team will have played at least one game. Starting sports have been sorted out. Mechanics are improving. And now it is time to start thinking about possible runs in the postseason. Here are the latest rankings. 

1. Lakewood (2-0)

Up next: at Braden River

Last week: No. 1

In the Spartans last eight games against Pinellas County teams, they have posted six shutouts and allowed a combined nine points. No county opponent has come within 30 points of beating Lakewood. The latest rout came last week when the Spartans dismantled Boca Ciega 40-6. The Spartans forced nine turnovers, two of which they returned for touchdowns. 

2. Clearwater (1-1)

Up next: vs. Plantation American Heritage 

Live stream: Fans can watch for free on Identity Tampa Bay as part of their Prime Time Friday Game of the Week

Last week: No. 2

As the finals ticked away, the Tornadoes started celebrating. Years of frustration were finally. Last week, Clearwater rallied to beat its archnemesis, Largo. It was the first the Tornadoes had beaten their neighboring rival since 2016. Clearwater quarterback Kamrhen Simpkins accounted for 200 yards and scored twice, the last coming on a short run in the fourth quarter that turned out to be the winning score. The tough early season schedule continues with a game against state powerhouse Plantation American Heritage. 

3. Calvary Christian (2-0)

Up next: at IMG White

Last week: No. 5

The Warriors showed their balance on offense in a 17-7 win over Seffner Christian. Brandon Marcsisin threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns. And running backs Makkah Jordan and Jordan Mouzon each rushed for more than 100 yards. So far, Calvary Christian has knocked off two of the area’s top playoff contenders in Class 2A. The perfect start should continue against IMG White this week. 

4.  Clearwater Academy (0-2)

Up next: at Jacksonville Sandalwood

Last week: No. 3

Sure, the Knights are winless but they have one of the toughest schedules of any county team. Last week, they traveled to play Lynn Haven Mosely and lost 31-28. It doesn’t get any easier. The traveling show continues this week with Clearwater Academy going to Jacksonville to take on Sandalwood. 

5. Boca Ciega (1-1)

Up next: at Seminole 

Last week: No. 4 

In their last two meetings against Lakewood, the Pirates have been outscored by a combined 75-6. It was supposed to be a more competitive game in last week’s true opener, especially considering all the skill players Boca Ciega had returning. But turnovers were costly. The Pirates will try to bounce back this week against undefeated Seminole. 

6. Clearwater Central Catholic (1-1)

Up next: vs. Sebring

Last week: No. 9

The Marauders defense is made up of four sophomores, four juniors, two seniors and a freshman. Many are new faces. Cohesiveness was going to take time. But CCC needed that unit to take a stand, they delivered. Carson Schiavello, a sophomore who had 14 tackles, made his biggest in the fourth quarter last week against Wiregrass Ranch, resulting in a turnover on downs. That gave the Marauders the momentum they needed as Lenwood Sapp scored on a 3-yard in the final minute for a much-needed win. 

7. East Lake (1-1)

Up next: at Tarpon Springs

Last week: No. 7

The defense was dominant in a 15-0 win over Sunlake. Rylan Bostick had 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery and Jonny Emerson had nine tackles and 2.5 sacks to lead the Eagles. The momentum should continue against Tarpon Springs, a rivalry East Lake has owned for the past decade. 

8. Countryside (2-0)

Up next: vs. Palm Harbor University (Thursday)

Last week: No. 8 

The offense found its groove, racking up more than 500 yards in a win over Osceola last week to remain undefeated. Gabe Olds threw for 187 yards, ran for 78 and accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two running). Zyterius Watts took on the bulk of the work in the ground game, rushing for 155 yards on 20 carries. 

9. Pinellas Park (1-1)

Up next: vs. Leto

Last week: No. 6

After winning wild against Mitchell a year ago, the Patriots were not able to have the same success on the ground in last week’s rematch. Pinellas Park fell behind in the first half and could not catch up in a 42-12 loss. But the Patriots should have no trouble rebounding against winless Leto this week.    

10. Seminole (2-0)

Up next: vs. Boca Ciega

Last week: Unranked

The Warhawks are 2-0 for the first time since 2002 thanks to a stingy defense that has allowed a combined 12 points. Jonathan Brown picked off two passes and had four tackles in last week’s win over Dunedin. 

On the bubble

Largo (0-2), Hollins (0-1) 

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Football

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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