Football coach Matt Kitchie and cheerleading coach Celisa Cook remain teachers
By Kyle LoJacono
Land O’ Lakes High cheerleading coach Celisa Cook and football coach Matt Kitchie will not return to lead their sports next season.
Gators principal Ric Mellin confirmed the two will not have their positions renewed, but will both remain as teachers. Kitchie is a physical education teacher, while Cook is the exceptional student education department head. Neither coaches any other sport at Land O’ Lakes.
Mellin said both teachers received a letter from Pasco County Superintendent Heather Fiorentino Dec. 22, the day before schools let out for the winter break.
“There was a decision made that went against what’s outlined in our code of conduct,” Mellin said.
Fiorentino said the discipline was under her direction.
Both coaches, as well as defensive coordinator Jason Hatcher, were indefinitely suspended after an off the field incident involving an unnamed student in November.
The three coaches missed the Gators’ last regular season game against Hudson High, a 42-10 win, and their first-round playoff loss to eventual state champion Jefferson High. Also absent from both those last two contests was senior quarterback Stephen Weatherford. Offensive line coach Pat Corcoran took over the football team and junior Ryan Bird was the quarterback to end the year.
Hatcher was not a teacher, but a permanent substitute at Land O’ Lakes. He was told he would no longer be working at the school in December.
Mellin said the football position is being advertised this week, but is not tied to any teaching opening. He hopes to have a new coach in place before the start of spring practice, which begins in May.
“We want to give the new coach time to select the assistants,” Mellin said. “Continuity is very important for high school athletics, but I’m sure the next coach will want to have some say in the staff.”
As for cheerleading, the sport is very much in season. The Gators competed in the regional tournament Jan. 8, but results were not available by press time. Junior varsity coach Andrea Burkhart has been the acting varsity coach since Cook’s suspension.
“I commend both Pat and Andrea for stepping in under difficult circumstances,” Mellin said. “I know it wasn’t easy for them.”
Mellin said the cheerleading position, which is also not tied to a teaching job, will be advertised after the season.
Cook did not comment on the decision, but Mellin said she has been the cheerleading coach for the last several years except for the 2009-10 season when she resigned for personal reasons. She reapplied after the position opened again the next year.
Kitchie became the football coach for the 2009-10 school year, coming from Saint Stephen’s Episcopal High. He took over for John Benedetto, who coached the Gators for 32 seasons. Land O’ Lakes went 17-3 under Kitchie, including two playoff appearances as the Class 3A, District 7 runner-up.
“I loved coaching this program, but at least the kids have closure now instead of wondering what’s happening,” Kitchie said. “I’m not worried about me though. I’ll get another coaching position. I’ve still got my teaching job here at Land O’ Lakes and I’ll do the best job I can.”
Mellin said he does not regret bringing Kitchie to the school.
“I selected him as coach and I’m proud of his accomplishments here and still consider him a friend,” Mellin said. “I wish him the best of luck. It just didn’t work out here.”
There are currently two high school head football positions opened in Pasco and north Hillsborough counties, including the head job at Mitchell and Gaither. Kitchie has applied for the Gaither position, which was vacated when nine-year Cowboys coach Mark Kantor stepped down in December.
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