Spring football practices are one week away for high schools across the state. Though the first games of the 2017 season remain several months away, Florida high schools are allowed a maximum of 20 practice sessions from April 24 to May 31, according to Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) guidelines.
Here’s a look at what schools in our coverage area in Pasco are working with:
Cypress Creek Middle High School
Coach: Mike Johnson (1st year)
2016 Record: N/A
A brand-new program, Cypress Creek likely will face significant challenges in its first few seasons. The 2017 campaign, for instance, will feature no seniors, as current freshmen and sophomores zoned for the school will be pulled from both Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch high schools.
Meanwhile as spring ball approaches, Mike Johnson — entering his first year as a high school head football coach — is still finalizing his assistant staff. There are other logistical hurdles, too, as the weight room and athletic fields remain under construction at the school’s campus.
The Coyotes’ offensive and defensive schemes remain a mystery, though Johnson recently said he’ll gear the playbook toward the strengths of his eventual roster and coaching staff.
For comparison’s sake, other recent upstart programs in Pasco County have struggled in their early stages. Sunlake High, for example, went a combined 5-25 its first three years of existence, from 2007-2009. Wiregrass Ranch, likewise, went a combined 7-23 its first three seasons, also from 2007-2009.
Land O’ Lakes High School
Coach: Brian Wachtel (7th year)
2016 Record: 2-6
Put simply, the Land O’ Lakes Gators have endured a rough couple years on the gridiron. Since its last winning season in 2013 (8-2), the program went 4-6, 3-7 and 2-6.
The 2017 campaign won’t be easy either, as four of the team’s first five games are on the road, including slates against Wesley Chapel and Sunlake.
To generate a turnaround, the Gators must find some consistency on offense — a unit that scored just eight touchdowns all year. That won’t be easy, with the team losing three of its top four receivers (Justin Kren, Hunter Carlisle, Brayden Lyman) from 2016; leading rusher Kyle Leivas (308 yards) does return, however.
The departure of kicker/punter Dylan Hohenthaner (38.2 yards per punt) shouldn’t be overlooked, either. The Indiana State University signee was a valuable weapon, averaging 38.2 yards per punt.
On a positive note, the Gators return rising junior linebacker Myron Bloom, one of the region’s most productive defensive players. An SAC East First-Team All-Conference selection, Bloom racked up 119 tackles and six tackles for loss.
Pasco High School
Coach: Tom McHugh (10th year)
2016 Record: 1-9
The Pasco Pirates look to regroup from last year’s 1-9 debacle — the program’s worst record since 1978. While the season was troublesome all around, perhaps the toughest moment for Pirates fans to grasp was a 49-0 home loss to crosstown rival Zephyrhills.
In 2015, the Pirates also experienced another setback to their nine-mile rival, losing 50-16.
Lopsided defeats aside, a bounce-back season could be in store for 2017.
Consider that several of Pasco’s top contributors were just sophomores last season, meaning there’s room for development and progress.
Expect players like running back Jamar Hicks Jr. (386 yards rushing, three touchdowns) and receiver Jacquez Mobley (20 receptions, 200 yards) to make significant strides as juniors.
Other key cogs — including linebacker Cameron Smith, and linemen Camron Craig and Cody Mercer — also return. All three were named to the 2016 SAC East All-Conference team.
There’s an opportunity for early-season victories, as the Pirates play four of their first five games at home, including matchups against Ridgewood, Gulf and Cypress Creek.
Sunlake High School
Coach: Bill Browning (11th year)
2015 Record: 7-3
Entering his 11th season as head coach, Bill Browning has the Sunlake Seahawks running like a well-oiled machine, compiling seven consecutive winning seasons. However, the program could be in for a slight rebuilding year in 2017, as heavy reinforcements are needed on both sides of the ball.
First off, the Seahawks must replace one of the county’s top quarterbacks in Justin Hall (1,945 yards, 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions in 2016). Other skill players will need to be groomed on offense, since the Seahawks will be without its top four contributors in Tyler Peretti (40 catches, 866 receiving yards, six TDs) Cris Galdos (666 all-purpose yards, four TDs), Ryan Clark (23 receptions, 412 yards, five TDs) and Justin Metzger (562 yards rushing, four TDs).
Defensively, Sunlake will miss three of its top four tacklers, losing linebackers Izzy Aquino (67 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, five sacks) and Chris Williams (74 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks), and safety Jabriri Davis (55 tackles).
But, if history is any indication, new standouts may quickly emerge for the Seahawks.
And, that could be sooner rather than later, considering the program’s junior varsity squad went 6-1 in 2016.
Wesley Chapel High School
Coach: Anthony Egan (2nd year)
2016 record: 7-2
In his first year as head coach, Anthony Egan oversaw a remarkable turnaround for Wesley Chapel football, a program that hadn’t experienced a winning season since 2011.
Now, Egan looks to take the next step — a district title and a corresponding playoff appearance.
Though the Wildcats will be without two-year starting quarterback Jacob Thomas (806 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions), other offensive standouts return, including leading rushers Dexter Leverett (1,249 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Malik Melvin (358 yards, seven touchdowns).
The team’s top returning player, however, is cornerback Isaiah Bolden, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound Florida State commit.
A consensus four-star recruit, Bolden is ranked as the nation’s 22nd best cornerback for the 2017 class, according to ESPN.
The rangy athlete will once again be tasked with locking down the opposition’s top receiver and also contribute on special teams, where he averaged nearly 15 yards per punt return in 2016.
Another Wildcats player to watch is middle linebacker Austen Wittish, who led the team with 93 tackles last season.
Wiregrass Ranch High School
Coach: Mark Kantor (3rd year)
2016 record: 7-3
It appears Wiregrass Ranch football has finally turned a corner, following last season’s program-high seven wins — good enough for District 8-8A runner-up.
Don’t be surprised to see the Bulls have another fruitful season, considering the bevy of talent returning to the field.
While a new quarterback must be groomed, the Bulls return 1,000-yard tailback Dada McGee (1,063 yards, 11 touchdowns), along with its top five wide outs, including 5-foot-8 slot back Adrian Thomas (17 receptions, 207 yards).
Meanwhile, the Bulls again feature one of the most feared secondaries in the region, thanks to the return of uber-skilled cornerbacks Jordan Miner and Shamaur McDowell. Both heavily touted Division I prospects, Miner claims more than 20 scholarship offers, while McDowell has 10.
The Bulls’ X-factor, however, may be newcomer Raymond Woodie III, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound dual-threat quarterback transfer from Carrollwood Day School. The rising junior likewise is being courted by major Division I programs, holding offers from the likes of Southern California and Michigan State universities. (Woodie III is the son of Raymond Woodie Jr., former University of South Florida defensive coordinator and current inside linebackers coach/special teams coordinator at the University of Oregon.)
Early season matchups against Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel and Sunlake should provide a good barometer of how the 2017 Bulls stack up.
Zephyrhills High School
Coach: Nick Carroll (2nd year)
2016 record: 8-3
Even with a first-time head coach, the Zephyrhills Bulldogs maintained their consistent level of success in 2016.
Last year marked the third consecutive eight-win season and sixth winning season overall for the program, leaving Bulldogs fans eager for the future.
The 2017 edition could prove equally generous to the Bulldogs, with the return of major pieces from a potent, balanced offense that averaged 341 yards per game and scored 50 touchdowns last season.
Some key returnees include quarterback Charles Harrison III (2,038 total yards, 26 touchdowns, five interceptions), leading rusher Elijah Thomas (649 yards, five touchdowns) and leading receiver Tre’Pavis Mobley (39 catches, 802 yards, 11 touchdowns).
Defensively, the Bulldogs return its top two pass rushers from last season — Sterlin Williams (8.5 sacks) and Ja’varrius Wilson (eight sacks)— along with middle linebacker Zac Masci (66 tackles, 2.5 sacks).
The Bulldogs, however, have some early tough tests, facing Wiregrass Ranch and Sunlake the first two weeks of the season.
Zephyrhills Christian Academy
Coach: Mike Smith (3rd year, 11-man)
2016 Record: 7-2
Though the Warriors lose three key playmakers in Serion Bellamy (Shorter University in Georgia), Mykh’ael Chavis (Minnesota State) and John Emmanuel (Minnesota State), the team still has enough pieces to remain competitive in District 2-2A, in 2017.
That starts with leading rusher Calvin Samuel, who racked up 695 yards and seven touchdowns on just 44 carries last season.
Other contributors, like leading receivers Kollin Eckel (133 yards, three touchdowns) and Eugene Davis (145 yards, two touchdowns), are also expected to return, marking the program’s third year of playing 11-man football.
Productive defensive players like lineman Jalen Spencer (24 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and linebacker Alonzo Sampson (47 tackles, eight tackles for loss) should be back, too.
Next week The Laker/Lutz News will preview Hillsborough County teams in our coverage area.
Published April 19, 2017