Better late than never, and something better than nothing.
In typical years, Florida’s high school football season kicks off sometime in August with a preseason game followed by a 10-game regular season schedule.
This year isn’t like any other, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) weeks ago gave the OK to begin fall sport tryouts on Aug. 24, with competition beginning Sept. 4, though many programs have elected to take the gridiron on Sept. 11 with a contracted eight-game slate.
Locally, prospects are high for some teams, while others hope to use this season as a learning experience for ensuing years.
Without further ado, here is a look, a primer, of all the Hillsborough County and Pasco County prep teams in The Laker/Lutz News coverage are.
Carrollwood Day School Patriots
Coach: Mark Jones (fifth year)
Following a winless 2019 campaign, Carrollwood Day School is poised for a major turnaround thanks to a trio of Seffner Christian Academy transfers in senior tight end Michael Trigg, junior defensive tackle Brandon Cleveland and offensive tackle Clay Wedin, plus the addition of defensive tackle Desmond Mamudi, a Steinbrenner High School transfer. All of those players are viewed as high-level Division I talents — most notably Trigg, widely regarded as one of the nation’s top five tight end prospects for the 2021 recruiting class. Meanwhile, Cleveland is a Miami commit; Mamudi, a USF commit; and, Wedin boasts nearly two dozen scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, among others.
Size alone should provide a mismatch in the small-school 2A ranks. Trigg is 6-foot-4, 230 pound; Cleveland is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds; Mamudi is 6-foot-3, 310 pounds; and, Wedin is 6-foot-6, 280 pounds.
Freedom High School Patriots
Coach: Christopher Short (second year)
Freedom felt significant struggles offensively last year under new head coach Christopher Short, being shutout in half of their contests. Perhaps a roster with 16 seniors and a seemingly manageable schedule will yield more victories this time around.
Gaither High School Cowboys
Coach: Kirk Karsen (fourth year)
Gaither looks to reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year and build off its most successful season in school history — a 12-2 mark and reaching the Class 6A state semifinals.
Despite the graduation of stat-stuffing quarterback Tony Bartalo (3,194 passing yards, 50 total touchdowns) and some other standouts, the Cowboys remain loaded with more than a handful of Division I talents. That includes quarterback Kiael Kelly (Ball State commit), lineman Andrew Kilfoyl (USF commit), cornerback Jordan Oladokun (Iowa commit), tailback Ricky Parks (Utah commit), and cornerback Jordan Young (Florida commit), among others. National high school sports website MaxPreps.com tabbed Gaither as the state’s No. 10 team regardless of classification in its 2020 preseason rankings.
Steinbrenner High School Warriors
Coach: Andres Perez (ninth year)
Like Gaither, Steinbrenner, too, is coming off its most prolific campaign in program history — going 12-2 and reaching the Class 8A state semifinals.
Also like Gaither, the Warriors must pivot its passing game with the graduation of uber-productive quarterback Hunter Carlson (2,582 passing yards, 35 total touchdowns) and top two wideouts Dean Patterson (58 receptions, 837 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Aidan Bitter (54 receptions, 807 yards, 13 touchdowns).
With that, expect the Warriors to rely heavily on a running game paced by Iowa State commit Dean Silas, a 5-foot-7, 170-pound senior who tallied 985 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 113 carries (8.7 yards per carry) last season.
Also of note, the Warriors feature one of the nation’s top-ranked prep long snappers and punters in junior Griffin Wiltse. He averaged 37.9 yards per punt last season.
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats
Coach: Shawn Brown (sixth year)
Academy at the Lakes is seeking its third eight-man state title in four years. After winning back-to-back eight-man state crowns in 2017 and 2018, the Wildcats last season went 6-2 and were eliminated in the first round of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference playoffs.
Keeping senior quarterback Jalen Brown — the team’s starter since eighth grade — healthy all season is paramount to another deep run. Same goes for fellow seniors and team captains Adrian Leverette, Sean Saccomanno and Dwight Downing, plus others.
Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes
Coach: Ken Stills (first year)
New head coach Ken Stills takes over a Bishop McLaughlin program that woefully went 1-7 and was outscored by a 274-91 margin.
The Hurricanes, of course, hope for a turnaround under Stills, who brings quite the gridiron pedigree, having played for the Green Bay Packers (1985-1989) and Minnesota Vikings (1990) following a decorated college career at Wisconsin.
Stills most recently served as a running backs coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton and also is a former head coach for the River City Rage of the United Indoor Football, and former running backs coach of the XFL’s Los Angeles Xtreme.
He’s also the father of former University of Oklahoma and current Houston Texans’ wide receiver Kenny Stills, who’s embarking on his eighth NFL season.
Cypress Creek High School Coyotes
Coach: Mike Johnson (fourth year)
Cypress Creek enjoyed its first winning season and first playoff berth since the Wesley Chapel-based school opened in 2017.
Replacing the talented twin duo of Jalen and Jehlani Warren will be tough, but the Coyotes look to have a quarterback to build around in junior Owen Walls, who entrenched himself as the team’s starter midway through last season.
Land O’ Lakes High School Gators
Coach: Trac Baughn (first year)
After a disappointing 2-8 mark last season, Land O’ Lakes turns to a football coaching lifer who hopes to steer the program back to winning seasons and playoff berths.
In new head coach Trac Baughn, the Gators get someone with more than 30 years combined experience at the college and prep level, mostly throughout the state of Mississippi.
His two seasons as head coach at Kosciusko High School in central Mississippi may serve most relevant to the Gator programs.
Baughn guided that team to 10-3 mark in both 2015 and 2016, reaching the third round of Mississippi 4A playoffs both years. He was twice named “Area Coach of the Year” as those teams finished ranked in the Mississippi Associated Press’ 4A Top 5.
Baughn in interviews has said he operates a system predicated on running the football and being fundamentally sound on defense.
While the team will trot out more than a dozen seniors, the Gators have an unfavorable schedule against the likes of Mitchell, Tampa Catholic, Gaither, Wiregrass Ranch, Fivay and Calvary Christian high schools, among others.
Pasco High School Pirates
Coach: Jason Stokes (second year)
Pasco finished 4-6 last year, but proved competitive in several of their defeats — losing four games by seven points or fewer. The Pirates return more experience compared to last season, but also have a challenging schedule that features Auburndale, Hollins, River Ridge — each of which tallied at least eight victories last season.
The Pirates should continue to be one of the county’s better defensive teams with the return of First-Team All-Conference linebacker Amir Burgess and linebacker Gabriel Barnes, the team’s top two tacklers from 2019.
Sunlake High School Seahawks
Coach: Trey Burdick (second year)
Sunlake may still be in a bit of transition mode under second-year head coach Trey Burdick, who took over from area coaching legend Bill Browning — the man who built Sunlake from scratch in 2007, guided it to seven straight winning seasons and retired as one of the winningest coaches in Pasco and Hernando counties.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks must find a way to replace the impact left behind by several All-Conference performers, such as tailback Zach Spicer, linemen Hunter Feiden and Cayman Wiseman, linebacker Damian Riewold, and athlete Jacob Schwarz, among others.
Returning junior quarterback Kevin Spillane, however, provides some stability offensively and turned in a respectable 2019 campaign, completing 63.3% of his throws for 921 passing yards and seven touchdowns and six picks, and adding another 130 yards on the ground.
Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats
Coach: Tony Egan (fifth year)
The Wildcats haven’t suffered a losing season with head coach Tony Egan at the helm. A somewhat manageable schedule, which includes matchups against Anclote, Gulf and Tarpon Springs — programs that went a combined 4-26 last season — should help keep that deed intact. Finding consistent and reliable quarterback play will be critical, plus the needed emergence of some playmakers to help replace of two-way standout Jelani Vassell (graduated) and defensive back J.T. Anderson, a Division I prospect who transferred to Chamberlain High. Meantime, the Wildcats have boosted its coaching staff with notable program alums Kenny Roberts and Ellrie Allen.
Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls
Coach: Mark Kantor (sixth year)
Wiregrass Ranch is seeking its fifth-straight winning season, but it won’t be easy replacing the production of nine All-Conference seniors from 2019. That includes the reigning Sunshine Athletic Conference Eastside Offensive Player of the Year (wideout Keith Walker) and Defensive Player of the Year (linebacker Dylan Ridolph, the county’s all-time career sacks leader with 48.)
Luckily, the Bulls do benefit returning arguably the county’s top quarterback in junior Rocco Becht, who completed 52.1% of his throws last season for 1,985 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The son of 12-year NFL tight end and ESPN college football analyst Anthony Becht, the pro-style signal-caller is a consensus three-star recruit with already a half-dozen scholarship offers from Division I FBS programs (FIU, Iowa State, Southern Miss, Toledo, Wake Forest, West Virginia).
Another bonus: The team boasts one of the nation’s top-ranked kickers in Adam Mihalek, who last season registered 31 touchbacks, averaged 56.1 yards per kickoff, was successful on 36 of 39 point-after touchdown attempts, and made three of seven field goals, including a long of 39 yards.
Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors:
Coach: Mike Smith (sixth year)
Zephyrhills Christian has enjoyed four-straight winning seasons and corresponding playoff appearances, but will have a colossal void to fill with the graduation of two-way lineman Malik Jones — arguably the most decorated athlete to ever come through the program.
The 6-foot-2, 296-pound Jones — now a freshman on scholarship at Division I FBS Florida Atlantic — registered a single-season county record in sacks (26) in 2019, to go along with 113 total tackles. A two-time state wrestling champion, his strength and push on both lines of scrimmage will be missed dearly.
Offensively, the 2A school must replace the production of tailback Tyler Davis, who rushed for 1,274 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior last season.
Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs
Coach: Nick Carroll (fifth year)
Zephyrhills last season experienced its first minor setback in the Nick Carroll coaching era — finishing with a pedestrian 5-5 mark.
By comparison, in the previous three seasons, the Bulldogs under Carroll went a combined 29-6 en route to two district titles and another runner-up.
Expect the Bulldogs to be feared again this season, with a more experienced roster, plus a slew of returning All-Conference performers in tailback Zyre Roundtree, defensive back Tre Gallimore, offensive lineman Jarrin Galyan and defensive end Maguire Neal.
A full year of experience under the belt for incumbent dual-threat quarterback Timothy Jackson should lead to a leap in production and decision-making for the rising junior. Last season he completed 50% of his passes for 924 yards, seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and added 371 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Hillsborough County schools in Laker/Lutz News coverage area (and their 2019 records)
- Carrollwood Day School Patriots (2A) (0-9)
- Freedom High School Patriots (6A) (2-8)
- Gaither High School Cowboys (6A) (12-2)
- Steinbrenner High School Warriors (8A) (12-2)
Pasco County schools in Laker/Lutz News coverage area (and their 2019 records)
- Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (eight-man) (6-2)
- Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes (Independent) (1-7)
- Cypress Creek High School Coyotes (4A) (6-5)
- Land O’ Lakes High School Gators (6A) (2-8)
- Pasco High School Pirates (6A) (4-6)
- Sunlake High School Seahawks (7A) (4-6)
- Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats (5A) (5-5)
- Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls (7A) (7-4)
- Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors (2A) (6-5)
- Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs (5A) (5-5)
Published September 09, 2020