High school football is back in session — as preseason spring football practices are now underway statewide.
And while the 2021 prep season remains months away, prep gridiron fans can still get a taste of how their teams are shaping up with a series of exhibition games and jamborees in late May.
Florida high schools are allowed a maximum of 20 practice sessions from April 26 through May, according to Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) guidelines. The first allowable day for full-contact tackling is May 1.
Here’s a closer look at how programs across The Laker/Lutz News coverage area, in Hillsborough and Pasco counties:
Carrollwood Day Patriots (Class 3A-3 — up from 2A)
Coach: Marshall McDuffie, first year
Skinny: Carrollwood Day enters the 2021 campaign with a new head coach and losses of All-State players on both sides of the ball (tight end Michael Trigg, Southern Cal; defensive tackle Desmond Mamudi, Virginia Tech). But the program remains well-stocked with other talented young players — several of whom are likewise garnering Division I FBS looks or scholarship offers. Meanwhile, the Patriots have prepared a challenging schedule, facing the likes of Clearwater Calvary Christian (7-2 in 2020), Trinity Catholic (7-4), Seffner Christian (8-5) and Cambridge Christian (9-2) high schools, among others.
Freedom Patriots (6A-9)
Coach: Christopher Short, third year
Skinny: Sure, Freedom went winless last season, with several blowout defeats to boot, but the team’s final two games — on the road — were decided by six points or fewer. Perhaps that yields confidence for a team led mostly by then freshman quarterback Taquawn Anthony. At least one other exciting player to watch is rising junior athlete Robby Washington, who generated a team-leading 1,299 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns.
Gaither Cowboys (7A-9 — up from 6A)
Coach: Kirk Karsen, third year
Skinny: Gaither will need to mold a new starting signal-caller to replace the uber-productive Kiael Kelly (Ball State University) — and the loss of several other graduating All-State talents. Yet, a pressure-heavy defensive front paced by Mario Eugenio and Tawfiq Thomas should help the transition for a program that’s remarkably gone a combined 23-3 the past two seasons. Eugenio ranked third in the state in sacks (17.0) last season, while Thomas contributed 15 tackles for loss. Also, the Cowboys move up from Class 6A to 7A, with district opponents now Largo, Leto, Mitchell and Sickles high schools.
Steinbrenner Warriors (8A-11)
Coach: Andres Perez-Reinaldo, 11th year|
Skinny: Steinbrenner must replace several playmakers on both sides of the ball. Besides losing its starting quarterback and top tackler, arguably the most notable departure is All-State tailback Deon Silas — now headed to Iowa State University — though rising junior Kirby Voorhees seems poised for an expanded role after registering 461 rushing yards on 61 carries, eight touchdowns in 2020.
Meantime, special teams figures to be a strong suit thanks to the legs of punter Griffin Wiltse (returning from a torn ACL) and kicker Collin Young (made five of six field goals, including a long of 42 yards, plus 28-for-28 on extra points).
Wharton Wildcats (7A-10 — down from 8A)
Coach: Mike Williams Sr., second year
Skinny: Wharton looks to build off its first postseason appearance since 2013, under the tutelage of second-year coach Mike Williams Sr. The 37-year-old offers pedigree as a seven-year NFL veteran who was a first-round pick in 2005 by the Detroit Lions out of Southern Cal, where he achieved All-American honors. (He also prepped at Plant High in the early 2000s). Having two All-State defensive players (Daveon Crouch, Henry Griffith) returning doesn’t hurt, either. The Wildcats transition down from Class 8A to 7A, with district foes being Armwood, Strawberry Crest, Tampa Bay Tech and Wiregrass Ranch high schools.
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (8-man)
Coach: Shawn Brown, eighth year
Skinny: In replacing nearly half the roster due to graduations, arguably the biggest blow to the Academy at the Lakes program is the graduation of quarterback Jalen Brown. He anchored the team for five seasons (starting as an eighth-grader) and back-to-back 8-man state titles in 2017 and 2018. Moving forward, at least one player to watch is rising sophomore linebacker Latrell Taylor, who garnered Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC) 8-Man second-team All-State honors after posting a team-leading 55 tackles in six contests.
Bishop McLaughlin Hurricanes (3A-2 — up from independent)
Coach: Ken Stills, second year
Skinny: Bishop McLaughlin wants to build off a respectable .500 campaign under coach Ken Stills, who played six NFL seasons from 1985-1990 and brings professional coaching experience from the United Indoor Football and XFL, as well as Bradenton’s IMG Academy. Stills seems to have brought stability to a program that’s now had six different head coaches since 2013. Tasks include replacing All-State quarterback Adrian Miller III (transferred to Zephyrhills Christian Academy), and navigating the upward transition to Class 3A from the Independent ranks.
Cypress Creek Coyotes (5A-9 — up from 4A)
Coach: Mike Johnson, fifth year
Skinny: Cypress Creek comes off a disappointing season exacerbated by a tough schedule against local powerhouses such as Mitchell, Tampa Catholic and Zephyrhills. What should bring confidence is the return of one of the area’s top quarterbacks in rising senior Owen Walls, who completed 54% of his throws for 1,233 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions in eight games last season. The Coyotes move up to Class 5A, joining a district that includes Hudson, Brooksville Nature Coast, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills high schools.
Land O’ Lakes Gators (Independent — down from 6A)
Coach: Trac Baughn, second year
Skinny: Land O’ Lakes certainly had a rough go in 2020 under new head coach Trac Baughn and a young roster, going just 1-7 and being outscored by a 72-268 margin. On a positive side, Baughn brings nearly three decades of coaching high school and college football, mostly throughout Mississippi. Interestingly, the Gators have opted to play this season as an Independent — instead of Class 7A — to help ease the program’s rebuild. Replacing the production of All-State defensive end Zavian Mckinon (12.5 sacks, 43 tackles) will be tough, in any case.
Pasco Pirates (6A-5)
Coach: Jason Stokes, third year
Skinny: Pasco seems to methodically be gaining momentum under the guidance of coach Jason Stokes, as he tries to steer the program back to its first winning season since 2014. Stokes has led three other prep programs to playoff appearances and also helped the Pirates notch the elusive win over Zephyrhills in the 9-Mile War in 2019 — after four straight blowout defeats to the Bulldogs under then head coach Tom McHugh. It’s critical to find ways to replicate production from several defensive stalwarts, including its top three tacklers, top three sack artists, and top two interceptions and passes defensed leaders. After all, this was a team defense last season that earned two shutouts, and held three other opponents to eight points or fewer.
Sunlake Seahawks (6A-9 — down from 7A)
Coach: Trey Burdick, third year
Skinny: Sunlake comes off another trying season — one that saw its offense get shut out in half its contests and only two victories coming against equally struggling programs — Leto (1-8) and Land O’ Lakes (1-7) high schools, respectively. Kevin Spillane returning as starting quarterback for a third season should help, as should linebacker Mitchell Hammond, the reigning Sunshine Athletic Conference East Defensive Player of the Year. However, the Seahawks will be without its top three wideouts who each garnered at least 20 catches in 2020. The program slides down a peg to Class 6A from 7A, entering a district which features Countryside, Fivay, Freedom and River Ridge high schools.
Wesley Chapel Wildcats (5A-9)
Coach: Tony Egan, sixth year
Skinny: Wesley Chapel has yet to experience a losing campaign under the watch of coach Tony Egan. There’s optimism for similar steadiness despite a sturdy 2021 slate against the likes of Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills, Brooksville Nature Coast, River Ridge and Mitchell high schools. Yet, the Wildcats have plenty of offensive and defensive production returning, including five All-Conference performers — wideout Nehemiah Morgan, linebacker Aydon Roysdon, tailback Jaylan Blake, offensive lineman Briac Riles, and linebacker Josh Poleon.
Wiregrass Ranch Bulls (7A-10)
Coach: Mark Kantor, seventh year
Skinny: Through Wiregrass Ranch finished just under .500 for the first time since 2015, it was against an objectively daunting schedule facing the likes of Armwood, Mitchell and Tampa Bay Tech (not to mention a season-ending forfeit to Orlando East River due to a COVID-19 outbreak). However, confidence appears amidst the return of rising senior quarterback Rocco Becht, the reigning Sunshine Athletic Conference East Offensive Player of the Year who, an Iowa State university verbal commit. Becht — the son of 11-year NFL veteran and current ESPN college football analyst Anthony Becht — completed 53.4% of his throws for 1,550 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions across eight games last season.
Zephyrhills Bulldogs (5A-9)
Coach: Nick Carroll, sixth year
Skinny: Winning consistently and in dominant fashion has been an ongoing theme for Zephyrhills under coach Nick Carroll’s tenure — collecting a pair of district titles (and another runner-up) and posting a combined 42-14 record across five seasons. The 2020 campaign, too, was noteworthy, given the team rapped off eight straight victories after dropping its two games. And six of those eight wins were of the shutout variety — the most lopsided being a 55-0 romp over Anclote in late November. Anticipate similar shutdown defensive performances to continue this year, as the Bulldogs should return five of its six top tacklers, including All-State linebacker Maguire Neal, who boasts multiple Division I FBS scholarship offers.
Zephyrhills Christian Warriors (2A-2)
Coach: Mike Smith, seventh year
Skinny: Zephyrhills Christian enters spring camp seeking a sixth straight winning season. The prognosis seems pointed that way, as the squad returns a pair of All-State defensive backs in Quavious Cook and Fred Adams, plus the incoming transfer of All-State dual-threat quarterback Adrian Miller III, from Bishop McLaughlin. This should help boost a team that was already averaging nearly 29 points per game last season. Further adding to the program’s winning swagger is a brand-new artificial turf football field, and weight room, among other frills.
Schools in Laker/Lutz News coverage area (and their 2020 records)
- Carrollwood Day School Patriots (5-5)
- Freedom High School Patriots (0-9)
- Gaither High School Cowboys (11-1)
- Steinbrenner High School Warriors (4-3)
- Wharton High School Wildcats (7-2)
- Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (4-2)
- Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes (4-4)
- Cypress Creek High School Coyotes (3-7)
- Land O’ Lakes High School Gators (1-7)
- Pasco High School Pirates (5-6)
- Sunlake High School Seahawks (2-6)
- Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats (5-4)
- Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls (4-5)
- Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs (8-3)
- Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors (8-3)
Spring game schedule
Land O’ Lakes at Cypress Creek
Wiregrass Ranch at Berkeley Prep
Steinbrenner, Gaither, Sickles at Tampa Alonso (Jamboree)
Tampa Bay Tech, Freedom, Wharton at King (Jamboree)
Mitchell at Zephyrhills
Pasco at Sunlake
Miami GDS Academy at Zephyrhills Christian Academy
Hollins at Wesley Chapel
Published April 28, 2021