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Football: Region semifinal preview (Classes 8A-5A)

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All games start at 7:30

Class 8A

Steinbrenner (4-2) at Newsome (6-2)

Stat leaders: Steinbrenner: RB Deon Silas, Sr. (160.0 rushing, 62.8 receiving yards per game); QB Bryce Lowe, Jr. (160.2 passing yards per game); LB Austin Brannen, Sr., (11.7 tackles per game); DB Matt Durrance, Sr. (0.5 interceptions per game). Newsome: RB Jason Albritton, Jr. (73.4 rushing yards per game); ATH Kamarii Austin, Sr., (81.6 passing yards per game); LB Caden Huffman (8.8 tackles per game); DB Kevin Osborne, Sr. (0.3 interceptions per game) 

Outlook: This is a rematch from last year’s region quarterfinals that Steinbrenner won 49-20 en route to reaching the state semifinals for the first time. Both teams can pile on the points but so in differing styles. The Warriors use a more balanced approach, led by versatile running back Deon Silas, an Iowa State commit who gained more than 300 yards rushing and scored five touchdowns on the ground in last week’s win over Ridge Community. The Wolves are all about the running game, relying on Jason Albritton (587 yards, 10 touchdowns this season) and J.C. Roque (528 yards, five touchdowns) to move the chains. 

Pinkos’ pick: Newsome by 4

Putnam’s prediction: Steinbrenner 28-20

Class 7A

Armwood (5-3) at Bloomingdale (10-0)

Stat leaders: Armwood: QB Cam’Ron Ransom, Sr. (198.8 passing yards per game); ATH Charles Montgomery, Sr. (73.8 receiving yards per game); WR Jamal Jones, Sr. (57.5 receiving yards per game); DL Desmond Watson, Sr. (4.8 tackles per game); DL Chris Davis, Sr. (1.8 sacks per game); DB Kye Stokes, Jr. (0.5 interceptions per game); DB Demarion Hopkins, Sr. (0.5 interceptions per game). Bloomingdale: QB Tre Simmons (197.3 passing yards per game); WR Agiye Hall, Sr. (93.8 receiving yards per game); LB Wa’myron Howard, Sr. (6.7 tackles per game); DL Malik Simmons, Sr., (0.9 sacks per game); DB Britton Pascoe, Jr. (0.7 interceptions per game).   

Outlook: One of the most anticipated matchups in the region semifinals. The rivals square off again in a rematch from the season opener the Bulls won 15-14. That helped Bloomingdale, ranked 11th overall in the state and 42nd nationally by MaxPreps, go undefeated in the regular season for the first time. Though the Hawks enter with three losses, they have all been by a combined nine points. Special teams were costly in the first meeting with the Bulls. Armwood had a snap sail over the punter’s head that was recovered for a touchdown and allowed a kickoff return for the other score. 

Pinkos’ pick: Bloomingdale by 7

Putnam’s prediction: Bloomingdale 14-13

Lakeland (6-3) at Tampa Bay Tech (7-3)

Stat leaders: Lakeland: QB Mason Martin, Jr. (104.3 passing yards per game); RB Reggie Kellum, Sr. (100.1 rushing yards per game). Tampa Bay Tech: QB David Wright, Sr. (243.2 passing yards per game); RB Rod Gainey, Fr. (64.5 rushing yards per game); WR Jamari Gassett, Sr. (90.1 yards receiving per game); DL/LB Keyon Clark, Jr. (5.5 tackles per game, 1.0 sacks per game); DB Steven Parker, Sr. (0.4 interceptions per game). 

Outlook: This is the game the Titans have been waiting for all season. Last year, Tampa Bay Tech nearly pulled off the upset of the Dreadnaughts, falling 37-30 in the region semifinals. This sime, the Titans get the rematch at home. David Wright threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s meeting. He will need another strong performance for Tampa Bay Tech to have a chance to prevail. 

Pinkos’ pick: Tampa Bay Tech by 10

Putnam’s prediction: Tampa Bay Tech 35-34

Mitchell (10-0) at Wekiva (6-3)

Stat leaders: QB Ezra Brennan, Sr., (185.2 passing yards per game); RB Andy Treto, Jr. (82.9 rushing yards per game); WR Jonathan Fairbank, Sr. (55.2 receiving yards per game); WR Elijah Hadley, Sr. (55.4 receiving yards per game); WR Maguire Anderson, Sr. (33.4 receiving yards per game); DB Cole Castro, Sr. (6.4 tackles, 0.5 interceptions per game). Wekiva: QB Junior Muratovic (177.0 passing yards per game); RB Chad Davis, Jr., Sr. (55.8 rushing yards per game); WR Asaad Waseem, So. (60.2 receiving yards per game); LB Johnny Chaney, Sr., (6.4 tackles per game, 0.8 sacks per game); DB Tamareon Foster, Jr. (0.8 interceptions per game).  

Outlook: The best season in Mustangs history continues. They have already won two playoff games for the first time (the first one was a play-in game). Now Mitchell will try to take the next step by making its first region final. To get there, the Mustangs will have to get past its biggest challenge yet. Wekiva’s three losses have all come against quality opponents, including a one-point overtime defeat against undefeated Orlando Jones. The key will be how well Mitchell handles adversity. The Mustangs have won every game this year by 28 or more points.  

Pinkos’ pick: Wekiva by 10

Putnam’s prediction: Mitchell 28-24

Class 6A

Lake Minneola (8-1) at Largo (5-4)

Stat leaders: Largo: RB TJ Holmes, Sr. (134.4 rushing yards per game); QB Garrett Gurney, So. (72.6 passing yards per game); S Zayvion McCluster, So., (8.4 tackles per game); LB Adarius Hayes, Fr. (8.5 tackles per game); DL Deondre Randall, Jr. (1.0 sacks per game); DB Burhaan Hamm, Jr. (0.5 interceptions per game). Lake Minneola: QB Robbie Sanders, Jr. (71.8 passing yards per game); RB Sidarius Walker, Sr. (128.4 rushing yards per game); DB Jamel Butts, Sr. (11.0 tackles per game); DL Brendan Flakes, Sr. (1.0 sacks per game). 

Outlook: A rematch from last year’s region semifinals the Hawks won 33-13. The Packers have not played in two weeks. They advanced in last week’s region quarterfinals after Deltona was forced to forfeit after having multiple players in quarantine due to contact tracing. Largo cannot afford to be rusty, especially on defense. Lake Minneola is averaging 56 points in each of its last four games, all wins. 

Pinkos’ pick: Lake Minneola by 21

Putnam’s prediction: Lake Minneola 28-16

Gaither (10-0) at Countryside (8-3)

Stat leaders: Gaither: QB Kiael Kelly, Sr. (155.4 passing yards per game); RB Ricky Parks, Sr. (69.5 rushing yards per game); WR Drelin Pittman, Jr. (56.9 receiving yards per game); LB Nick Bartalo, Sr. (8.0 tackles per game); LB Hayden Reed, Sr. (6.4 tackles per game); DL Mario Eugenio, Sr. (2.0 sacks per game); DB Jordan Young, Sr. (0.3 interceptions per game); DB Jordan Oladokun, Sr. (0.3 interceptions per game). Countryside: QB Gabe Olds, Sr. (95.0 passing yards per game); RB Zyterius Watts, Jr. (59.7 rushing yards per game); LB Matt Sattinger, Sr. (10.7 tackles per game); DL Carson Burbee, Jr. (0.5 sacks per game). 

Outlook: The Cowboys, ranked 18th overall in the state, are in the region semifinals for the second straight season. They have been dominant against Pinellas County foes in the playoffs, beating Seminole and Clearwater by a combined 76-7 in the first two rounds. The Cougars, meanwhile, are in the region semifinals for the first time since 2010. To pull off the upset, Countryside will have to rely on its running game for some clock-eating drives that produce scores. That will be a tough task against a Gaither defense that has allowed just 45 points all season. 

Pinkos’ pick: Gaither by 28

Putnam’s prediction: Gaither 35-14

Palmetto (7-3) at Hillsborough (8-1) 

Stat leaders: Palmetto: QB Josh Siplin, Sr. (128.1 passing yards per game); RB Sagel Hickson, Sr. (73.9 rushing yards per game); LB Rubin Stamp, Sr. (10.6 tackles per game); DL Jordan Renaud, Sr. (0.6 sacks per game). Hillsborough: QB Caleb Pierce, Jr. (193.7 passing yards per game); RB Jordaan Bailey, Jr. (57.3 rushing yards per game); WR Kareem Chambers, Sr. (58.0 receiving yards per game); LB Joey Sipp Jr. (11.3 tackles per game); LB KJ Harris, Sr. (0.9 sacks per game).  

Outlook: The Terriers, who have won eight straight since dropping the season opener to Armwood, are in the region semifinals for the first time since 2017. Now, Hillsborough is trying to take the next step by reaching the region finals for the first time since 2012. To do that, the Terriers will continue to rely on their balanced offensive attack, led by quarterback Caleb Pierce and running backs Jordaan Bailey and Joey Sipp Jr. The Tigers, which made the state semifinals last season, are in the region semifinals for the third straight season. 

Pinkos’ pick: Palmetto by 6

Putnam’s prediction: Hillsborough 21-19

Class 5A

Zephyrhills (8-2) at Orlando Jones (8-0)

Stat leaders: Zephyrhills: QB Jaxson Rivera, Jr., (48.0 passing yards per game); RB Zyre Roundtree, Sr. (95.7 rushing yards per game); LB Theotis Smith, Jr. (8.4 tackles per game); DL Maguire Neal, Jr. (1.0 sacks per game); DB Tre Gallimore, Sr. (0.3 interceptions per game). Orlando Jones: QB Tysan Robbins, Sr. (156.0 passing yards per game); RB Daquan Harris, Jr. (102.0 rushing yards per game); LB Daniel Mosley, Jr. (6.2 tackles per game); LB Jonathan Aleem Jr., Sr. (0.7 sacks per game). 

Outlook: The Bulldogs, who made the region semifinals for the third time in the past four seasons, were supposed to host this game. But Pasco County implemented new COVID-19 safety guidelines that restricted fans and media members from attending games. To accommodate spectators from both teams, the Florida High School Athletic Association decided to move the game to Orlando Jones. To extend its eight game win streak, Zephyrhills will have to continue to rely on a strong running game, led by Zyre Roundtree and Tre Gallimore. The Fightin’ Tigers, who are ranked 44th in the nation and fifth overall in the state by MaxPreps, played in last year’s state final and are in the region semifinals for the third straight season.  

Pinkos’ pick: Orlando Jones by 31

Putnam’s prediction: Orlando Jones 34-21

Orlando Bishop Moore (6-2) at Jesuit (11-0)

Stat leaders: Orlando Bishop Moore: QB Luke Hedrick, Sr. (236.6 passing yards per game); RB Daniel Flatch, Sr. (61.8 yards per game); WR Marc Morrison, Sr. (85.1 receiving yards per game); LB Sonny Rao, Sr. (7.8 tackles per game); DL/LB Karlis Bailey-Vice, Sr. (1.0 sacks per game); Jesuit: QB Joe Pesansky (204.4 passing yards per game); RB Joquez Smith, So. (80.4 rushing yards per game); WR Junior Vaneross, Jr. (60.6 receiving yards per game); WR Jaydn Girard, So. (46.5 receiving yards per game); LB AJ Cottrill, Jr. (13.1 tackles per game); DB Tyler Corish, Sr. (0.5 sacks per game). 

Outlook: This is familiar territory for the Tigers, who are making their eighth straight region semifinal appearance. Jesuit has been to go on cruise control, winning nine games this season by double digits. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Tigers have outscored River Ridge and Chamberlain by a combined 85-14. It won’t be as easy against the Hornets, whose two losses this season were by a combined seven points. 

Pinkos’ pick: Jesuit by 14

Putnam’s prediction: Jesuit 27-14

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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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