The 2017 high school football season is finally underway. As the games unfold, here’s a look at some of the teams and players to watch in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area:
Teams to Watch:
Steinbrenner High Warriors
Coach: Andres Perez-Reinaldo (sixth year)
Despite some key departures from last year’s 5-4 squad — including starting quarterback Colin Wray’s defection to Clearwater Central Catholic— the Warriors look primed for a third straight winning season. That was evident in their Aug. 28 season opener, a 19-0 road shutout of Freedom High School. If that game is any indication, Steinbrenner features a strong running game led by senior Dionte Waldron and freshman Deon Silas, and big-play receivers in senior Brandon Garcia and sophomore Aidan Bitter. The Warriors have no shortage of playmakers on defense, either. Besides the return of a pair of tackling machines in senior linebacker/safety Charles Stephens (99 tackles in 2016) and senior defensive tackle Juan Batista (87 total tackles in 2016), the Warriors have others — including senior end Cade Murray and junior linebacker Logan Kilburn— capable of making stops behind the line of scrimmage.
The Warriors still need to find a steady, reliable presence at quarterback, especially with difficult matchups remaining against the likes of Jesuit, Bradenton Manatee, Sarasota Riverview and Tampa Catholic high schools.
Sunlake High Seahawks
Coach: Bill Browning (11th year)
It’s tough to doubt the Sunlake Seahawks and its run of seven straight winning seasons — each with at least seven victories. However, the consistent program may be in for a slight rebuilding campaign after losing numerous contributors on offense and defense from last year’s 7-3 squad. Besides developing a new quarterback in either senior Ryan Kasper or junior Hunter Watts, dynamic playmakers on offense also need to emerge. Similar questions remain on defense, as the Seahawks replace three of its top four tacklers from last season. Meanwhile, Sunlake’s schedule doesn’t get any easier, with matchups against Wiregrass Ranch, Springstead, Brooksville Central and River Ridge high schools.
Wiregrass Ranch High Bulls
Coach: Mark Kantor (third year)
Wiregrass Ranch appears to be one of the top teams in the Tampa Bay area, even after a tumultuous offseason that saw three of its top players — cornerback Shamaur McDowell, athlete Raymond Woodie III, tailback Da Da McGee — transfer elsewhere. The team’s strength was evident in the Bulls memorable 31-29 season-opening victory over Zephyrhills High, where their talent and moxie reigned supreme. Junior quarterback Grant Sessums, in his first year as a starter, could emerge to become one of the county’s most productive signal-callers, especially with a senior-laden group of pass-catchers, in A.J. Brown, Devaun Roberts and Daniel Biglow. Establishing a capable running game also could go a long way in Sessums’ and Wiregrass’ success. The Bulls, meanwhile, return one of the region’s top players in versatile, ball-hawking cornerback Jordan Miner, a Penn State University commit. Besides roaming the defensive backfield, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound athlete also is utilized on offense and kickoff returns.
Zephyrhills High Bulldogs
Coach: Nick Carroll (second year)
One of the county’s most successful programs of late, Zephyrhills has the talent and depth to secure a fourth straight playoff appearance. It all starts with senior dual-threat quarterback Charles Harrison III, the county’s top returning signal-caller (2,038 total yards, 26 total touchdowns, five interceptions in 2016). And, there’s no lack of weapons at Harrison’s disposal, with the return of leading rusher Elijah Thomas (649 yards, five touchdowns) and leading receivers Tre’Pavis Mobley (39 catches, 802 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Ja’quan Sheppard (25 catches, 443 yards, six touchdowns).
Defensively, the Bulldogs return two of their top pass rushers from 2016 — Sterlin Williams (8.5 sacks) and Ja’varrius Wilson (eight sacks)— along with senior middle linebacker Zac Masci (66 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and senior safety Myles Carter (25 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions).
Meanwhile, the rest of the season sets up relatively nicely for the Bulldogs, with manageable matchups against teams like Ridgewood, Fivay, Gulf, Anclote and Pasco high schools.
Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors
Coach: Mike Smith (third year, 11-man)
The Warriors are proving last season’s 7-2 mark wasn’t a fluke, especially after downing Bishop McLaughlin 35-6 in its Aug. 25 home opener. The Warriors, competing in Class 2A for the first time, feature one of the county’s most prolific ground attacks, led by seniors Calvin Samuel (695 yards, seven touchdowns in 2016) and Alonzo Sampson, and Pasco High transfer Javion Hanner — each capable of explosive plays. The Warriors, too, feature a handful of impact players on defense, anchored by 300-pound sophomore defensive lineman Malik Jones and 215-pound junior linebacker/defensive end Jalen Spencer. One of the more intriguing tests for the Warriors will be on Oct. 13, when they face Carrollwood Day School at home.
Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats
Coach: Tony Egan (second year)
Besides having arguably the county’s top do-everything athlete in Isaiah Bolden (University of Oregon commit), the Wildcats have several pieces returning to a team that won its first seven games in 2016, before faltering down the stretch with road losses to Zephyrhills and River Ridge high schools.
It has a potent running game led by 1,000-yard rusher Dexter Leverett and Malik Melvin (358 yards, seven touchdowns).
With Bolden returning at cornerback, the Wildcats defense also features several other standouts, including inside linebacker Austen Wittish (93 tackles in 2016) and 6-foot-7 defensive end/Florida State University commit Chaz Neal.
The looming question is finding consistency at quarterback following the graduation of two-year starter Jacob Thomas.
Players to Watch:
Athlete — Isaiah Bolden, Wesley Chapel High senior
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound versatile athlete might be the top football prospect in all of Pasco County. The University of Oregon commit — with nearly 30 other scholarship offers— is a consensus four-star recruit widely regarded as one of nation’s top 20 cornerback prospects for the Class of 2018. Besides roaming the defensive backfield, Wesley Chapel High coaches utilize Bolden as a quarterback, punter and return man. He’ll also sometimes line up at running back and receiver.
Cornerback — Jordan Miner, Wiregrass Ranch High senior
Like Bolden, Miner is another a blue chip, four-star cornerback committed to a high-profile college program (Penn State University). Nationally, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Miner is ranked among the top 30 corners for the 2018 recruiting class, where he’s lauded for his quickness, physicality and ball skills. He’s also an impact player on special teams, as he averaged 33 yards per kick return in 2016.
Defensive Back — John Dixon, Wharton High junior
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Dixon is quickly hopping on the radar of some of the nation’s premier college programs. His junior season just underway, Dixon already boasts offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, Tennessee, South Carolina, South Florida and Maryland universities. Multiple recruiting outlets — like 247Sports and ESPN.com— rank Dixon as a four-star prospect and one of the nation’s top 25 cornerback prospects for the 2019 class. Dixon tallied 44 tackles and two interceptions in 2016.
Receiver — Ja’quan Sheppard, Zephyrhills High junior
One of Zephyrhills High’s many offensive playmakers, the 6-foot-2, 176-pound Sheppard is a dynamic threat, both as a receiver (25 catches, 443 yards, six touchdowns in 2016) and ball carrier (325 yards, five touchdowns). Besides having reliable hands, Sheppard has shown the capability for chunk plays of 40 yards and 50 yards. He currently has an offer from Samford University, a Division I Football Championship Series (FCS) program in Homewood, Alabama.
Running back/defensive back — Dexter Leverett, Wesley Chapel High senior
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Leverett was Pasco County’s third-leading rusher in 2016, tallying 1,254 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 165 carries (7.6 yards per carry). And, he displayed consistency, with nine games of at least 100 yards.
Wesley Chapel head coach Tony Egan summed up Leverett’s rushing ability in an interview last season: “He’s got it all. He’s a power back, he’s explosive, and he’s got that top-end speed—the kid runs a 4.53 40 (yard dash). He’s just a really quick kid…and he can make cuts in the open field.”
Leverett is not just an offensive star. He’s also a key cog on defense, where he posted 75 total tackles last season.
Ten more to watch:
Athlete — Calvin Samuel, Zephyrhills Christian Academy senior
Cornerback — A.J. Hampton, Wharton High senior
Linebacker — Myron Bloom, Land O’ Lakes High junior
Linebacker— Adam Jarvis, Sunlake High senior
Linebacker— Matthew Wood, Gaither High senior
Offensive Tackle — Donovan Jennings, Gaither High senior
Offensive Tackle — Lavel Dumont, Wharton High senior
Quarterback — Charles Harrison III, Zephyrhills High senior
Running back/Linebacker — Dylan Gonzalez, Academy at the Lakes senior
Wide Receiver — Tre’Pavis Mobley, Zephyrhills High junior
Statistics compiled by MaxPreps.com
The Laker/Lutz News coverage area includes the following schools from Hillsborough and Pasco counties:
Carrollwood Day School Patriots (Class 2A-Region 3)
Freedom High School Patriots (Class 7A-Region 8)
Gaither High School Cowboys (Class 7A-Region 8)
Steinbrenner High School Warriors (Class 8A-Region 6)
Wharton High School Wildcats (Class 7A-Region 8)
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (8-man-Florida Christian Region 2)
Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes (Independent-Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC)
Cypress Creek Middle High School Coyotes (Class 4A-Region 3)
Land O’ Lakes High School Gators (Class 6A-Region 6)
Pasco High School Pirates (Class 6A-Region 6)
Sunlake High School Seahawks (Class 6A-Region 6)
Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats (Class 5A-Region 8)
Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls (Class 7A-Region 8)
Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs (Class 5A-Region 8)
Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors (Class 2A-Region 2)
The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) passed a new system last September that bases football postseason berths on a points system in Class A-4A. The new format, beginning this season, is designed to reward teams for winning records and strength of schedule.
In the FHSAA’s biggest four classes (5A-8A), the district champion still automatically qualifies for regionals, with the remaining 16 spots decided by points.
Published September 6, 2017