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Football: Class 7A play-in preview

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Class 7A

2020 FHSAA Football State Championships Class 7A Football

The schedule

Bloomingdale (8-0) at Plant City (5-3), 7:30

Outlook: This is a rematch of a regular season game the Bulls won 37-20. It also is a matchup between two of the nation’s top receivers, Bloomingdale’s Agiye Hall (Alabama commit) and Plant City’s Mario Williams (Oklahoma commit). In the first meeting, both put on a show. Hall finished with six catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns while Williams ended up with six catches for 81 yards and two scores. 

Pinkos’ pick: Bloomingdale by 24

Putnam’s prediction: Bloomingdale 28-20

East Bay (2-6) at Pinellas Park (5-2), 7:30

Outlook: This is a headbangers’ ball. Both teams play smash mouth football, relying on their ground games to move the chains. The Indians use quarterback Nathan Carter (50.4 yards per game) as their primary rushing weapon. The Patriots go more by committee with Columbus Holston (61.3 yards per game) leading the way. 

Pinkos’ pick: Pinellas Park by 27

Putnam’s prediction: Pinellas Park 28-13

Lakeland George Jenkins (2-5) at Strawberry Crest (1-7), 7:30

Outlook: The Chargers drew a competitive matchup for the playoffs. To win, Strawberry Crest will have to turn to the running of Jesse Waldrop (34.8 yards per game) and hit a few big plays in the passing game. 

Pinkos’ pick: Lakeland George Jenkins by 7

Putnam’s prediction: Lakeland George Jenkins 14-7

Lakeland Kathleen (2-5) at East Lake (7-2), 7:30

Outlook: The Eagles, who enter the playoffs on a five-game win streak, have all the momentum. A big reason for their recent success is the improvement of the offense, which has scored more than 40 points in three of the last five games. East Lake lineman Trent Ramsey, a four-star recruit, has paved the way with 26 pancake blocks on the season. On defense, the Eagles’ Ryan Cunningham is averaging eight tackles per game. 

Pinkos’ pick: East Lake by 3

Putnam’s prediction: East Lake 20-16

Tampa Bay Tech (5-3) at Bartow (8-0), 7:30

Outlook: One of the state’s best postseason matchups with both teams coming in ranked among the top 17 in 7A. Titans quarterback David Wright is having a sensational season with 21 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. And he keeps improving. In Wright’s last three games, he has thrown for a combined 12 touchdowns. He is a big reason Tampa Bay Tech has scored more than 40 points in each of its last five games. 

Pinkos’ pick: Tampa Bay Tech by 12

Putnam’s prediction: Tampa Bay Tech 35-34

Mitchell (8-0) at Lake Howell (3-4), 7:30

Outlook: The Mustangs, already fixtures in the playoffs, have perhaps their best team in program history. They come in undefeated and ranked eighth in 7A. Mitchell should not have too much trouble moving, especially with Ezra Brennan behind center. In Brennan’s last three games, he has thrown for a combined 16 touchdown passes. 

Pinkos’ pick: Mitchell by 28

Putnam’s prediction: Mitchell 42-14

Sunlake (2-5) at Viera (4-3), 7:30

Outlook: Both of the Seahawks wins this season have come on the road. To keep that going, they will have to stop Hawks quarterback Cj Simms, who is averaging nearly 300 yards passing per game. 

Pinkos’ pick: Viera by 34 

Putnam’s prediction: Viera 42-21

The stats

7A area leaders

Passing yards (average per game)

251.3 David Wright, Tampa Bay Tech (21 TDs, 3 INTs)

241.8 Brandon Dessi, Sickles (7 TDs, 5 INTs)

202.4 Nick Felice, Plant City (15 TDs, 7 INTs)

201.5 Tre Simmons, Bloomingdale (18 TDs, 5 INTs)

198.8 Cam’Ron Ransom, Armwood (13 TDs, 4 INTs)

Rushing yards (average per game)

90.2 Reggie Bush, Plant City (3 TDs)

78.6 Andy Treto, Mitchell (5 TDs)

67.5 Romello Jones, Plant City (8 TDs)

65.9 Kenneth Walker, Wiregrass Ranch (6 TDs)

65.0 Rod Gainey, Tampa Bay Tech (5 TDs)

Receiving yards (average per game)

108.3 Agiye Hall, Bloomingdale (9 TDs)

100.5 Jamari Gassett, Tampa Bay Tech (7 TDs)

96.0 Domanic Cabrera, Sickles (0 TDs)

88.8 Bryson Rodgers, Wiregrass Ranch (10 TDs)

87.1 Mario Williams, Plant City (8 TDs)

Tackles (average per game)

13.5 David Smoaks, Pinellas Park

12.8 Malachi McCalip, Pinellas Park

12.6 Todd Miller, Plant City

11.9 Mitch Hammond, Sunlake

10.7 Alvontae Vance, Pinellas Park

Sacks (average per game)

1.8 Chris Davis, Armwood

1.3 Jordan Jiminez, Pinellas Park

1.0 Cole Highsmith, Plant City

1.0 Ryan Redfield, Armwood

0.9 Keyon Clark, Tampa Bay Tech

0.9 Jack Hostetler, East Lake

0.9 Nate Kidd, Wiregrass Ranch

Interceptions (average per game)

0.7 Britton Pascoe, Bloomingdale

0.6 Cole Castro, Mitchell 

0.5 Kye Stokes, Armwood

0.5 Demarion Hopkins, Armwood

0.5 Jordan Jiminez, Pinellas Park

Rankings

7A state top 25 (compiled by MaxPreps)

1. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (3-1)

2. Bloomingdale (8-0)

3. Orlando Edgewater (3-2)

4. Niceville (7-0)

5. Venice (7-3)

6. Bradenton Manatee (6-1)

7. Armwood (3-3)

8. Mitchell (8-0)

9. Tampa Bay Tech (5-3)

10. Gainesville Buchholz (6-2)

11. Apopka Wekiva (4-3)

12. Lakeland (4-3)

13. Orange Park Fleming Island (3-2)

14. Viera (3-3)

15. Plant City (5-3)

16. St. Johns Creekside (5-3)

17. Bartow (8-0)

18. Navarre (6-0)

19. Neptune Beach Fletcher (5-1)

20. Tallahassee Lincoln (5-1)

21. Homestead (1-2)

22. Stuart Martin County (7-1)

23. Pinellas Park (5-2)

24. Melbourne (2-3)

25. Lehigh Acres Lehigh (4-4)

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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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