With high school football practices in full swing and games beginning Aug. 24, here’s a look at teams, players and games to watch as the 2018 season unfolds, for programs in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.
Teams to watch:
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats
The defending Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools’ (FCAPPs) eight-man champions — who also went 11-1 — appear to be in line for another solid campaign, even with the exodus of a handful of top players such as running back/linebacker Daniel Gonzalez, receiver Isaiah Smith and defensive back Jordan Oladokun, who transferred to Gaither High School for his sophomore season.
The talent cupboard isn’t completely bare, with a roster that includes a combined 17 juniors and seniors. Along with FCAPPS Coach of the Year Shawn Brown, the Wildcats return a handful of All-Conference or All-State players in sophomore quarterback Jalen Brown, sophomore offensive lineman Andrew Kilfoyl and senior defensive lineman Dylan Price. Also expect significant contributions from senior tailback Jamaal Johnson (1,093 all-purpose yards, nine touchdowns) and senior tight end/defensive end Tioma Stepanets (221 yards, four touchdowns; 52 tackles, four sacks).
Land O’ Lakes High Gators
The Gators will look to secure its first winning season since 2013, under new head coach Chad Walker. The 34-year-old played professional football in Italy and Sweden, and spent several years as a college assistant, before delving into the high school coaching ranks. Walker inherits a sizable roster that includes 1,000-yard rusher Kyle Leivas and leading tackler Myron Bloom (76 tackles, five tackles for loss). Aside from those senior standouts, the Gators must find consistent quarterback play and additional offensive contributors.
The schedule doesn’t offer a ton of favors for the new Gators coaching staff. A tough district slate includes Mitchell and Springstead, along with other formidable opponents, such as Anclote, Hernando, and Lakeland Christian — each of which had winning seasons last year.
Wiregrass Ranch High Bulls
Wiregrass Ranch will have to move on from having one of the county’s most highly recruited football prospects in years — defensive back Jordan Miner, now at Penn State — plus a bevy of top contributors on offense such as 1,000-yard rusher Adrian Thomas, now at Division III Thiel College (Greenville, Pennsylvania).
The Bulls, however, should have enough reinforcements in place for a third straight winning season, after going 9-3 last year and 7-4 in 2016 under head coach Mark Kantor.
Incumbent quarterback Grant Sessums returns for his senior year after throwing for 1,483 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. Other key returnees include senior receiver/defensive back Dorien Green, senior defensive lineman Kasean Ridgel, and junior linebacker Dylan Ridolph, who tallied 89 tackles, and led the team in sacks (15) and tackles for loss (23). Also expect contributions from several up-and-coming players who’ll move up from a junior varsity team that went 6-1 last season.
Zephyrhills High Bulldogs
Zephyrhills fans will have to get used to rooting for a new quarterback, following the graduation of Charles Harrison III — who became one of the county’s most prolific signal callers in his three years as a starter.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, whoever takes snaps certainly won’t lack throwing options, with arguably the region’s top receiving corps — seniors Ja’Quan Sheppard (35 catches, 797 yards, 13 touchdowns), Tre’ Pavis Mobley (41 receptions, 640 yards, 10 touchdowns) Cartrell Strong (25 receptions, 410 yards, four touchdowns) and Tyreese Wigfall (15 receptions, 286 yards, seven touchdowns). Another constant is third-year head coach Nick Carroll, who’s tactfully built off the sustained success of former coach Reggie Roberts, going 10-2 and 8-3 his first two seasons, respectfully. With a collection of Division I and college talent, don’t be surprised if the program secures its eighth straight winning season. Last year the Bulldogs outscored opponents by a margin of 562-209 and went undefeated in District 8-5A. That included several blowouts against the likes of Sunlake (36-7), Ridgewood (59-7), Fivay (70-0), Gulf (70-0), Hudson (63-0) and Pasco (43-13).
Zephyrhills Christian Academy
The Warriors have transitioned to 11-man football under head coach Mike Smith, going 8-3-1, 7-2 and 4-4 the past three years, respectively. Now coming off a playoff appearance in the Class 2A ranks, the team figures to have another big season, as 24 of its 27 players are juniors or seniors. Among that senior group, on offense, is starting quarterback Jacoby Braxton, leading receiver Kavbion Marbra, and Javion Hanner, who tallied over 1,000 all-purpose yards and led all skill players with 10 touchdowns. Meanwhile, on defense, most contributors return to a unit that last season allowed fewer than nine points per game and racked up 51 sacks and 16 interceptions. Among the standouts are Marbra (five interceptions at cornerback) and defensive end/linebacker Jalen Spencer (21 sacks). The team’s second-leading tackler from last season, Eugene Davis (94 total tackles), also returns.
Five more players to watch:
Chris Butash, quarterback, Carrollwood Day School, senior
The skinny: Butash, who lives in Wesley Chapel and formerly attended Academy at the Lakes, is coming off a season where he threw for 2,088 yards and 18 touchdowns/15 interceptions, and rushed for 570 yards and six touchdowns. Verbal commit to Division I FCS Holy Cross (Worcester, Massachusetts).
Darrion Robinson, receiver, Pasco High School, junior
The skinny: Coming off a breakout season where he caught 25 balls for 577 yards and eight touchdowns. His 23.1 yards per reception ranked tops in Pasco County.
Malik Jones, offensive/defensive lineman, Zephyrhills Christian Academy, junior
The skinny: The 6-foot-3, 300-pound lineman is an intimidating force on both sides of the trenches, particularly on defense posting 60 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and four sacks last season. A multisport athlete, Jones is also one of the state’s top heavyweight wrestlers, finishing third at the 2018 FHSAA Class 1A State Championship in March. Holds a scholarship offer from Division III Mount Union (Alliance, Ohio).
Jeremiah Ashe, receiver/safety, Freedom High School, senior
The skinny: Formidable two-way player that snagged six interceptions on defense, while posting 945 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns on offense. Claims over a dozen Division I FBS offers, including Cincinnati, South Florida and Rutgers universities.
Jeromy Reid, running back, Gaither High School, senior
The skinny: Rushed for 1,110 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Tallied five 100-yard games, including a monstrous 267-yard, two touchdown performance against Brandon High early last season. Holds Division I FBS offers from Western Kentucky and South Florida universities.
Games to watch:
Wiregrass Ranch at Zephyrhills (Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m.) — Two of Pasco County’s top squads last year square off in the first week of the 2018 season.
Sunlake at Land O’ Lakes (Sept. 14, 7:30 p.m.) — The annual “Butter Bowl” rivalry has been one-sided of late — Sunlake has won eight straight (including one via forfeit in 2011) — but Land O’ Lakes figures to be more competitive with the matchup on its home turf and the Seahawks coming off an uncharacteristic losing season (4-6 in 2017).
Zephyrhills at Pasco (Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m.) — The annual 9-Mile War may be more heated after Pasco head coach Tom McHugh this summer accused Zephyrhills’ coaches of recruiting improprieties, based on a July letter sent to Pasco County athletic director Matt Wicks. While the Pirates lead the all-time series 40-20, Zephyrhills has won the past three contests by a combined 138-29.
Zephyrhills Christian at Victory Christian (Lakeland) (Oct. 5, 7 p.m.) — The Warriors seek to avenge its 12-0 loss in the first round of last year’s FHSAA Class 2A playoffs.
Gaither at Wiregrass Ranch (Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m.) — Matchup could decide the District 8-7A runner-up — as it has the past two years — assuming Plant High repeats as district champs.
Schools in Laker/Lutz News Coverage Area (and their 2017 records)
Carrollwood Day School Patriots (Class 2A-Region 3): 2-7 overall, 1-2 district
Freedom High School Patriots (Class 7A-Region 8): 3-6 overall, 2-4 district
Gaither High School Cowboys (Class 7A-Region 8): 7-4 overall, 5-1 district
Steinbrenner High School Warriors (Class 8A-Region 6): 2-7 overall, 1-5 district
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (eight-man Florida Christian Region 2): 11-1 overall, 7-0 district
Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes (Independent-Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC): 3-7 overall, 2-2 district
Cypress Creek Middle High School Coyotes (Class 4A-Region 3): 0-11 overall, 0-0 district
Land O’ Lakes High School Gators (Class 6A-Region 6): 4-5 overall, 1-3 district
Pasco High School Pirates (Class 6A-Region 6): 4-7 overall, 0-4 district
Sunlake High School Seahawks (Class 6A-Region 6): 4-6 overall, 2-2 district
Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats (Class 5A-Region 8): 6-4 overall, 4-3 district
Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls (Class 7A-Region 8): 9-3 overall, 4-2 district
Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs (Class 5A-Region 8): 10-2 overall, 7-0 district
Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors (Class 2A-Region 2): 8-3 overall, 0-1 district
Published August 15, 2018