Fans of the local prep football scene can finally get excited — the 2021 varsity high school season is quickly approaching.
Preseason classics took place Aug. 20, while the regular season kicks off Aug. 27 in the state of Florida.
Here we take a closer look at Pasco County teams in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area —Academy at the Lakes, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic, Cypress Creek, Land O’ Lakes, Pasco, Sunlake, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills, and Zephyrhills Christian Academy.
We break down how they stack up for this upcoming campaign, where some teams figure to be powerhouses, while others are in rebuilding mode.
A preview of Hillsborough programs from the coverage area published last week.
Schools in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area (and their 2020 records):
- Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (4-2)
- Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes (6-4)
- 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)
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (eight-man)
Coach: Shawn Brown, eighth year
The Academy at the Lakes Wildcats appear to be in retooling mode following the graduations of numerous impact players, most notably veteran dual-threat quarterback Jalen Brown, who anchored the program for five seasons (starting as an eighth-grader) and won back-to-back eight-man state titles in 2017 and 2018. (Brown now will be playing collegiate basketball at NCAA Division II Tiffin University in Ohio.) At least one player to watch is junior defensive end David Scamporino-Blount, who posted 28 tackles (including 6.5 for loss) and 4.5 sacks in six games last season.
Bishop McLaughlin Hurricanes (3A-2)
Coach: Ken Stills, second year
Following three consecutive losing seasons, head coach Ken Stills helped turn things around for the Bishop McLaughlin Hurricanes in 2020, guiding the program to a 6-4 mark and runner-up in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC). (Though two of its wins came via forfeit.)
Building upon last year’s success could prove difficult, though, as its 34-man roster includes just four seniors.
The program will miss several impact players including All-State quarterback Adrian Miller (transfer), starting tailback Dontrevius Jackson (transfer) and cornerback Malik Giles (graduated), to name a few.
Another challenge to navigate — the Hurricanes are advancing from the SSAC to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA).
On the bright side, Stills may be able to coach his way through it.
After all, he played six NFL seasons from 1985-1990 and brings professional coaching experience from the United Indoor Football and XFL, as well as the nationally recognized IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Cypress Creek Coyotes (5A-9)
Coach: Michael Johnson, fifth year
Cypress Creek comes off a disappointing 3-7 season due in part to a really challenging schedule that featured local powerhouses like Mitchell, Tampa Catholic and Zephyrhills.
Working in the team’s favor in 2021 is an experienced group of upperclassmen headlined by senior quarterback Owen Walls, who completed 54% of his throws for 1,233 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions in eight games last season.
Several of Walls’ top targets return, including leading receiver Dontrell Clerkley (29 receptions, 427 yards, six touchdowns), Merrick Simmons (27 catches, 331 yards, six touchdowns) and Dernere Jones (11 catches, 166 yards), among others.
“He’s loaded with weapons on the outside, we’ve got a really deep backfield; he’s going to have a lot of options,” Coyotes head coach Mike Johnson said of his quarterback earlier this month, at North Suncoast prep football media day.
The Coyotes implemented a new playbook, too, since last season.
The coach noted players “put a lot of time in over the summer” familiarizing themselves with the playbook’s concepts and schemes.
Altogether, Johnson said the team is showing “cohesiveness and consistency” in early season practices. “We got better as a team,” he said.
The Coyotes move up from Class 4A to 5A, joining a district that includes Hudson, Brooksville Nature Coast, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills high schools.
They open the season with a home game against Estero Bonita Springs High, who went 3-6 last year.
Land O’ Lakes Gators (Independent)
Coach: Trac Baughn, second year
Land O’ Lakes Gators head coach Trac Baughn made the curious decision to go independent this year, rather than play a Class 7A slate.
The move is based, in part, to give a youthful roster chock-full of freshmen and sophomores more opportunities to have success and compete game-to-game, rather than get discouraged by a daunting large-school schedule.
After all, the team went just 1-7 last year and was outscored by a 268-72 margin.
At North Suncoast media day, Baughn characterized the independent route as “the best decision for our program at this time.”
There’s still much to be learned about the complexion of this team, as Baughn noted he’s unsure of where the team’s calling card lies, be it offense or defense. “I really don’t know at this point what the strength would be,” he said. “We’re still trying to find ourselves a little bit on both sides.”
In any case, Baughn knows what he’s doing, given that he brings nearly three decades of coaching high school and college football, mostly throughout Mississippi.
Also during media day, Gators players emphasized fellow teammates have entered the year stronger, in better shape and generally positive vibes surrounding the program overall.
Pasco Pirates (6A-5)
Coach: Jason Stokes, third year
The Pasco Pirates have methodically built momentum the last two seasons under the guidance of Jason Stokes, who’s trying to steer the program back to its first winning season since 2014.
Stokes has a decorated resume of doing that over his career, having led three other prep programs to playoff appearances — Bloomingdale, Gaither and Indian Rocks Christian high schools.
The Pirates look to build off a defense which allowed 20.5 points per game, that registered two shutouts and held three other teams to eight points or fewer.
Big responsibility will be given to senior inside linebacker Ethan Ayo, senior outside linebacker/defensive end Javon Jeune, and senior defensive tackle/guard Cody Tadlock, among others.
The Pirates have one of the toughest schedules in all of Pasco County this season. There aren’t many breathers with contests against Nature Coast Tech (8-2 record in 2020), Hernando (8-2), Ocala Vanguard (8-3), Lake Gibson (12-2) and Zephyrhills (8-3).
Sunlake Seahawks (6A-9)
Coach: Trey Burdick, third year
The Sunlake Seahawks expect to make significant strides under third-year starting quarterback Kevin Spillane, who completed 51% of his throws for 873 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games last season.
Sunlake head coach Trey Burdick heaped heavy praise on the senior signal-caller, noting his leadership and work ethic qualities, plus combination of strength, speed and understanding of the game. “One of the hardest kids I’ve ever been around,” Burdick said of Spillane during this month’s North Suncoast media day. “Anything he doesn’t have naturally, he works his tail off to earn it.”
Spillane’s veteran experience further allows the coaching staff to implement tempo, motion and numbers advantages at the point of attack, too, the coach explained.
Besides Spillane, the program shouldn’t lack for depth in the case of attrition, with some 80-plus players expected on the roster.
“We’re excited,” Burdick said. “We feel very confident that this year we’ll be competitive in every game and find ourselves in the end of a game with a chance to win.”
Wesley Chapel Wildcats (5A-9)
Coach: Tony Egan, sixth year
Wesley Chapel head coach Tony Egan is motivated to lead his program to greater heights — following a 5-4 mark last season and back-to-back 5-5 campaigns in 2018 and 2019.
Though the Wildcats technically made the playoffs in 2020 — like every other team under new COVID-19 rules — the coach is out for a more meritorious postseason berth this time around.
“Last year, people can say it was our first year we went to the playoffs,” Egan said during North Suncoast media day earlier this month. “It really wasn’t, because everyone made the playoffs, so I don’t feel any accomplishment from that.”
“It’s time for us to turn that around and do a lot better and make it to the playoffs, and win a playoff game — that’s our main goal. Our immediate goal is to get to the playoffs and win a game this year.”
The veteran coach is bullish on this year’s Wildcats group, given a hefty senior class of skill players and offensive linemen.
With that, Wesley Chapel is installing a run-heavy offensive attack — therefore steering away from the spread looks of the last few years.
Said Egan, “I think that this year we’re going to surprise some people with what we’re doing, we’re really getting out of that whole, ‘Spread it out, get cute on offense thing.’ It’s coming at you. It won’t be a secret in a week, so I might as well say it right now, we’re going to pound the rock, man, that’s what we’re all about.”
Defensively, it doesn’t hurt the Wildcats to have one of the area’s top linebackers in senior Jorden McCaslin, a bonafide Division I FBS prospect who recently picked up a scholarship offer from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
Wiregrass Ranch Bulls (7A-10)
Coach: Mark Kantor, seventh year
Wiregrass Ranch looks to rebound from a 4-5 mark and a season that ended prematurely due to a COVID-19 confirmation.
The program seems poised for a breakout, thanks to one of the Tampa Bay area’s more potent offenses — which racked up at least 41 points in four its games last season.
Senior quarterback Rocco Becht and junior wideout Bryson Rodgers are arguably the most lethal duo in Pasco County — as two of the most highly-touted Division I FBS prospects in the Tampa Bay area.
Becht — an Iowa State verbal commit — completed 53.4% of his throws for 1,550 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven picks last season.
Rodgers — who caught 47 of those passes for 710 yards and 10 touchdowns — is a consensus four-star recruit with more than a dozen college scholarship offers, including blue-chip programs such as Alabama, Penn State and Virginia Tech, among others.
Becht should have ample time to go through progressions and reads, with a more experienced offensive line buoyed by senior blindside Cristian Loaiza, who measures 6-foot-5, 320-pounds.
Bulls head coach Mark Kantor otherwise commended his team for its focus and preparation during early season practices, as well as senior leadership, during North Suncoast media day.
Zephyrhills Bulldogs (5A-9)
Coach: Nick Carroll, sixth year
The Zephyrhills Bulldogs have been a model of excellence over the past five years under head coach Nick Carroll — going a combined 42-14 record in that time, with no losing seasons either.
Following last season’s respectable 8-3 run, expectations again remain high for a Bulldogs squad that offers balance on both sides of the ball.
Senior Jaxon Rivera returns as the team’s starting quarterback (53.5% completion rate, 724 yards, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions), along with a solid complement of weapons such as leading receiver Timothy Jackson (14 receptions, 308 yards, four touchdowns) and second-leading rusher Jaylin Thomas (89 carries for 630 yards, 11 touchdowns).
On defense, middle linebacker Theotis Smith and All-State defensive end McGuire Neal return as the team’s leading tackler and sack artist. Smith posted 85 tackles, while Neal posted 13 sacks, respectively.
All told, Zephyrhills appears to be the early frontrunner to claim Class 5A, District 9, which also features Cypress Creek, Hudson, Nature Coast, Weeki Wachee and Wesley Chapel high schools, respectively.
Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors (2A-2)
Coach: Mike Smith, seventh year
Zephyrhills Christian is poised to keep momentum going from last season’s 8-3 mark — and continue its streak of four straight playoff berths.
The Warriors have proved they can not only defeat smaller private schools, but larger public schools as well — handily downing Mulberry (34-2), Hudson (42-9) and Sunlake (28-17) high schools last season alone.
Besides several key returnees, the Warriors added even more playmakers to the fold, headlined by dual-threat All-State quarterback Adrian Miller III and tailback/linebacker Dontrevius Jackson, who both transferred in from Bishop McLaughlin.
Miller III completed 60.3% of his throws for 768 passing yards, seven touchdowns and three picks last season for Bishop McLaughlin, while adding another 1,003 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns with his legs.
Jackson posted 973 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns on offense, and 37 tackles and two interceptions on defense for his former team.
Jackson’s also one of the state’s fastest sprinters.
At the 2021 FHSAA Class 1A Track & Field State Championships, he finished fourth overall in the 200-meter dash (22.19 seconds) and fifth overall in the 100-meter dash (10.83 seconds).
This should further boost a team that already was averaging nearly 29 points per game last season.
Adding to the program’s winning swagger is a brand-new artificial turf football field, and weight room, among other frills.
Published August 25, 2021