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For area playoff passers it’s a game of inches

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Mitchell’s Ezra Brennan and Tampa Bay Tech’s David Wright can improvise on a football field.

They can dissect defenses.

And they can flat-out throw a football.

What the two seniors cannot do is dodge the computer-printout prejudices colleges have when evaluating quarterbacks. After all, college programs measure quarterbacks not only by how many yards they can throw but by increments of height.

That is where they fall short. Both are just under 6 feet 1. Their height, or lack thereof, hangs over them like a dark cloud because colleges treat short quarterbacks like they have a virus.

Throughout the offseason — and most of the season — Brennan and Wright lived in maddening limbo, wondering whether a college would take a chance on him. 

Brennan, who has set nearly every school passing record, has no offers, only interest from several Division III programs.

“Everyone just looks at height,” Mustangs coach Andy Schmitz said.

Last week, Wright threw for five touchdowns against perennial powerhouse Lakeland to set the Titans’ career record for touchdown passes with 65. That total surpassed the previous record of 61 set by Michael Penix Jr., now a star at Indiana. 

The only offer for Wright so far has come from Iowa Western.

“I keep pounding the table with a college coach I know about not being the guy who passed on Rusell Wilson 2.0,” Tampa Bay Tech Jayson Roberts said, referring to Wright. 

The two quarterbacks are not alone. 

Of the eight area signal callers still in the playoffs, only two have committed to colleges — Gaither’s Kiael Kelly (Ball State) and Jesuit’s Joe Pesansky (Holy Cross) and just three have multiple offers. 

And it’s no coincidence that the three who have committed or have offers from schools at the Division I-A or I-AA level are among the tallest  — Pesansky (6-foot-4), Kelly (6-1) and Berkeley Prep’s Gavin Rupp (6-3). 

Still, being tall is not all there is, at least at the high school level.

After all, eight area quarterbacks still playing know how to win, no matter their height. 

Class 8A

Kamarii Findlay, Sr., Newsome

Height/weight: 5-9, 150

Stats: 38-of-75 for 810 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions (nine games). 

College offers: None

Class 7A

Ezra Brennan, Sr., Mitchell

Height/weight: 6-0, 170

Stats:  123-of-192 for 2,033 yards, 35 touchdowns and four interceptions. 24 carries for 237 yards and seven touchdowns (11 games). 

College offers: None

Tre Simmons, Sr., Bloomingdale

Height/weight: 6-0, 170

Stats: 134-of-232 for 2,262 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. 88 carries for 334 yards and seven touchdowns (11 games). 

College offers: Avilla, Chadron State, Findlay, Graceland, Keiser, Florida Memorial and Tusculum. 

David Wright, Sr., Tampa Bay Tech

Height/weight: 5-10, 193

Stats: 144-of-234 for 2,781 yards, 31 touchdowns and six interceptions. 86 carries for 340 yards and 11 touchdowns (11 games). 

College offer: Iowa Western

Class 6A

Kiael Kelly, Sr., Gaither

Height/weight: 6-1, 195

Stats: 102-of-156 for 1,432 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. 48 carries for 371 yards and eight touchdowns (11 games)

College offers: Committed to Ball State

Class 5A

Joe Pesansky, Sr., Jesuit

Height/weight: 6-4, 205

Stats: 134-of-208 for 2,485 yards, 29 touchdowns and five interceptions. 55 carries for 117 yards and five touchdowns (12 games). 

College offer: Committed to Holy Cross

Class 3A

Gavin Rupp, Sr., Berkeley Prep

Height/weight: 6-3, 200 

Stats: 46-of-84 for 901 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions (eight games). 

College offers: Gardner Webb, East Tennessee State and Tennessee Martin 

Class 2A

Titan Williamson, Sr., Seffner Christian

Height/weight: 6-2, 200

Stats: 157-of-272 for 1,753 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (12 games). 

College offers: LaGrange College

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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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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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