Star quarterback missing from senior night
By Kyle LoJacono
Land O’ Lakes High principal Ric Mellin suspended football coach Matt Kitchie, defensive coordinator Jason Hatcher and varsity cheerleading coach Celisa Cook indefinitely Nov. 12.
“All three are suspended for the rest of the season,” said Pasco County School District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli. “That includes the playoffs.”
Romagnoli said she could not release the reason for the suspension as it would reveal protected information about a student. She said an investigation began early last week.
All three coaches are also teachers at the school, but the suspension only applies to their coaching duties. First-year offensive line coach Patrick Corcoran was named interim football coach for the rest of the season, while Andrea Burkhart will lead the cheerleaders.
Mellin released a prepared statement on the day the suspensions were handed out, which read, “We’re confident in the new coaches’ ability to move the team forward with competence, character, integrity and enthusiasm.”
The Gators will be without Kitchie, who has compiled a 17-3 record in his two seasons with the squad, for their first-round playoff game at Jefferson High on Friday, Nov. 19 and they may also be without quarterback Stephen Weatherford.
The senior signal caller did not play in Land O’ Lakes’ final regular-season game Nov. 12 against Hudson High. Kitchie said the decision to sit Weatherford was made on Nov. 11 to prevent injury.
“We decided to sit him before everything happened on (Nov. 12),” Kitchie said.
While he was not expected to play, Weatherford was not even present on the field for senior night, when graduating players are honored. Of the 23 seniors on the football roster, Weatherford was the only one missing. Corcoran would not comment as to where Weatherford was that evening.
If Weatherford is out, the Gators will turn to junior Ryan Bird to lead the offense. Bird said he was not told he would be starting against Hudson until after school Nov. 12 when the team had a meeting to talk about the coaches being suspended.
“I don’t even remember those hours before the game,” Bird said. “They went by really fast and it was almost unreal. It felt kind of like a dream and then I was under center.”
Pasco athletic director Phil Bell was at the game against Hudson and said the coach’s suspensions and Weatherford’s absence had nothing to do with his department.
“That’s something that came from the school,” Bell said. “I have no knowledge of anything about the coaches or any student or students not here tonight.”
As for the coaches, Kitchie said Saturday he was not told of any timetable for the suspension. He said he can go to watch the playoff game Nov. 19 as a fan in the stands, but cannot coach in any way. He was not at the game against Hudson, but got updates from people in the stands of the team’s 42-10 win.
“I got a lot of text messages and people telling me how they were doing,” Kitchie said. “I was very proud of them for stepping up in a difficult situation and winning on senior night. They went out and rallied around each other. I’ve told them all year the team is bigger than any one person, even the coach. They went out and played Gator football like they have all year.”
Kitchie has been a coach for 10 years, seven at the high school level. He has also been a physical education teacher for those seven years.
Despite the disciplinary action, Kitchie said he feels his job is safe.
“I’m not in hiding or anything like that because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Kitchie said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”