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Football: Class 8A play-in preview

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Class 8A

2020 FHSAA Football State Championships Class 8A Football

The schedule

Riverview (1-7) at Wharton (6-1), 7:30

Outlook: Though the Wildcats had their six-game win streak snapped to end their hopes of an undefeated regular season, they have a chance to win a playoff game for the first time since 2008. Wharton’s success is due in large part to a defense that has allowed just 43 points all season. Henry Griffith leads the Wildcats in tackles with an average of 9.3 per game and Daveon Crouch is tops on the team in sacks with an average of 1.5 per game. Kadeem Robinson is having a monster season for the Sharks with 541 yards receiving, 536 rushing and 11 touchdowns. 

Pinkos’ pick: Wharton by 15

Putnam’s prediction: Wharton 20-7

Sarasota Riverview (7-1) at Plant (2-5), 7:30

Outlook: The Panthers have one of the toughest draws. They face a Riverview team that has allowed just 30 points combined during its current five-game win streak. Plant blockers will have to pay special attention to Tyre Smith, who leads the Rams in tackles (8.5 per game) and sacks (0.5 per game). 

Pinkos’ pick: Sarasota Riverview by 48

Putnam’s prediction: Sarasota Riverview 42-7

Alonso (2-6) at Palm Harbor University (3-4), 7

Outlook: This is a rematch from a regular season meeting the Hurricanes won 14-9. Expect another close, low-scoring game. Both teams will likely lean on their running game. PHU’s ground game is led by Mitchell Wood (107.3 yards per game) while the Ravens rely on James Holley-Berry (106.3). 

Pinkos’ pick: Palm Harbor University by 10

Putnam’s prediction: Palm Harbor University 21-14

Stats

8A area leaders

Passing yards (average per game)

197.4 Gavin Henley, Lennard (13 TDs, 3 INTs)

149.0 Bryce Lowe, Steinbrenner (7 TDs, 4 INTs)

144.0  Jayden Young, Riverview (13 TDs, 9 INTs)

138.4 Elijah Rhoden, Wharton (4 TDs, 11 INTs)

132.3 Jack Lennon, Plant (1 TD, 3 INTs)

Steinbrenner's Deon Silas
Steinbrenner’s Deon Silas

Rushing yards (average per game)

108.3 Deon Silas, Steinbrenner (6 TDs)

107.3 Mitchell Wood, Palm Harbor U (4 TDs)

106.3 James Holley-Berry, Alonso (11 TDs)

82.0 Kirby Vorhees, Steinbrenner (7 TDs)

73.3 Jason Albritton, Newsome (9 TDs)

Receiving yards (average per game)

79.7 Deon Silas, Steinbrenner (2 TDs)

67.6 Kadeem Robinson, Riverview (6 TDs)

66.3 Eelijah Singleton, Lennard (4 TDs)

57.8 Caleb Massey, Alonso (1 TD)

53.1 Demetrius Carter, Wharton (1 TD)

Tackles (average per game)

12.0 Austin Brannen, Steinbrenner

9.7 Rahmel Batty, Riverview

9.5 Colin Bernstein, Steinbrenner

9.3 Henry Griffith, Wharton

8.4 TJ Hubbell, Steinbrenner

Sacks (average per game)

1.5 Daveon Crouch, Wharton

0.8 Booker Pickett Jr., Wharton

0.8 Jeremiah Ross, Newsome

0.6 Antonio Moore, Alonso

0.6 Charlie Myers, Steinbrenner

Interceptions (average per game)

0.8 Ilan Egosi, Palm Harbor U

0.7 Jairon Dorsey, Wharton

0.6 Matt Durrance, Steinbrenner

0.4 TJ Hubbell, Steinbrenner

0.3 Kevin Osborne, Newsome

Rankings

8A top 25 (compiled by MaxPreps)

1. Miami Palmetto (1-0)

2. Sanford Seminole (7-0)

3. St. Johns Bartram Trail (8-1)

4. Orange Park Oakleaf (6-3)

5. Port St. Lucie Treasure Coast (7-0)

6. Orlando Dr. Phillips (5-1)

7. Apopka (5-3)

8. Vero Beach (6-2)

9. Winter Garden West Orange (4-3)

10. Winter Park (7-1)

11. Deland (3-2)

12. Sarasota Riverview (7-1)

13. Orlando Boone (6-2)

14. Kissimmee Osceola (5-2)

15. Jacksonville Sandalwood (6-2)

16. Flagler Palm Coast (4-3)

17. Lake Mary (6-2)

18. Port Orange Spruce Creek (4-3)

19. Newsome (5-2)

20. Altamonte Springs Lake Brantley (5-3)

21. Jacksonville Mandarin (3-5)

22. Orlando Timber Creek (6-1)

23. Steinbrenner (3-2)

24. Orlando Lake Nona (4-3)

25. Ocoee (3-4)

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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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