Fall football practices for Tampa Bay football teams officially kicked off this week. We’re rolling out daily district previews for all 78 varsity teams in the area. Today we look at our smallest district:
Indian Rocks Christian was the dominant team last season in Class 2A-5, going 6-0 and outscoring opponents 275-27. The Golden Eagles beat runnerup Carrollwood Day 14-6 and went on to reach the state semifinals. They might be good enough to do all that again, returning almost every key player from last season. But so does most everyone else, including Cambridge Christian and Northside Christian. And the league’s worst team, Keswick Christian, withdrew to play an independent schedule. “There’s no doubt everyone in the district is better this year,” CDS coach Lane McLaughlin said. “It’s going to be tougher to win.” The only 2A-5 team that didn’t finish at least .500 last year was 3-7 Northside Christian, which started mostly freshmen. Canterbury was in the middle of the pack, but low numbers and a lot of underclassmen will make the going tougher. And Bradenton Christian, despite losing eight seniors returns quarterback Joey Giardina, its leading passer and rusher last year.
Indian Rocks Christian returns nearly every significant player on offense. Most of them also are playmakers on defense. No other team in the district has that kind of experience — and talent — going into the season. In fact, the Golden Eagles are looking beyond just a district title. They are eyeing a return trip to the state semifinals and a rematch with defending state champion Miami Champagnat Catholic.
Next in line
If the offensive line holds up, Carrollwood Day is explosive enough to upset the Golden Eagles. And if not, the Patriots’ backfield and defense is still good enough to get them into the playoffs.
Cambridge Christian might have the most valuable offensive weapon in the district with quarterback Garrett Young (1,861 yards passing, 645 rushing and 34 total touchdowns) and returns all of its offensive skill position players. And watch out for Northside Christian, which remains sophomore heavy, but with plenty of varsity experience and athletes. And the addition of top offensive lineman recruit Dillan Gibbons could be a real difference maker.
3 IRC players who had at least 900 yards rushing last season (Theo Anderson, Damian King, Zeke McGaughy)
98.5 Percentage of Cambridge’s 3,511 yards of offense belonging to players who were underclassmen
95.8 Percentage of IRC’s 4,707 yards of offense belonging to players who were underclassmen
37 Points a game CDS has averaged over the past four years.
Players to watch
QB Josh Belton, So., Canterbury: Belton will be one of the more experienced Crusaders to take the field. An impressive freshman campaign, in which he threw for 681 yards and six touchdowns in a run-heavy offense, was enough to earn the sophomore the starting role again.
RB Elias Earley, Sr., Carrollwood Day: Already pulling track offers after a standout season in the 200 and 400, Earley is a breakaway threat every time he touches the ball.
QB Joey Giardina, Jr., Bradenton Christian: Giardina proved himself a dual threat in his sophomore season, passing for more than 1,000 yards and rushing for another 700.
WR/DB Damian King, Sr., Indian Rocks Christian: The Division I recruit is the team’s top returner in receiving yards (615), interceptions (six) and touchdowns (24). He also is a threat in the return game.
WR/S Josh Snead, Jr., Northside Christian: Snead will play slot receiver on offense. He is one of the more athletic players on the team and is expected to see several passes come his way.
WR Nick Stein, Sr., Cambridge Christian: Stein will look to be the go-to-guy in filling the void left behind by the graduated Trevor Young. He should be up to the task. The 5-foot-11 playmaker had 491 receiving yards and six total TDs last season.
Mark your calendar
Indian Rocks Christian at Carrollwood Day, Sept. 5: The biggest — and earliest — test of the season for the defending district champion Golden Eagles comes on the road against last year’s runnerup. This matchup boasts as many as five potential 1,000-yard rushers (IRC’s Anderson, King, McGaughy; CDS’ Willie Parker and Earley). These teams’ last three meetings were decided by eight points or fewer.
Returning district leaders
Rushing yards: Indian Rocks Christian’s Theo Anderson, 1,090
Rushing TDs: Anderson, 19
Passing yards: Cambridge Christian’s Garrett Young, 1,861
Passing TDs: Young, 20
Receiving yards: IRC’s Damian King, 615
Receiving TDs: King, 10
Tackles: IRC’s Chris Licea, 115
Sacks: Anderson, 10
Interceptions: King, 6
Predicted order of finish
From an anonymous coach in the district
6. Bradenton Christian
“On paper, this is the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here.” — IRC coach Mark Buchanan, who is entering his 10th season
Times staff writer Rodney Page and Jacob Lynn, and correspondent Jeff Odom contributed to this report.