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 a mixed Hillsborough-Polk County district.
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao thinks his district is the toughest in Class 3A, and by the looks of things, he might be right. Tampa Catholic ran the table last season, winning all five district matchups. The middle four teams all finished with a 2-3 or 3-2 record, and with no clear-cut second-best team, the second playoff spot came down to a tiebreaker between Frostproof and Fort Meade. Now that last-place Bishop McLaughlin opted to become independent, expect the now five-team district to be even more competitive. All five squads have at least one Division I prospect, and Fort Meade, arguably the least stacked of them all, is led by highly regarded coach Jermalle Cornelius, whose team didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in years last season. The closer we get to playoff time, the more fun district 3A-4 should be to watch.
Tampa Catholic lost some big playmakers, but it appears the Crusaders have done a good job of training their young guys to take over. Add one of Tampa Bay’s best players into the mix, and the Crusaders should have the talent to take another crack at a championship run. “For the young guys especially, I think they learned what it takes,” TC coach Mike Gregory said of last season’s run to the state semifinals. “They learned how to focus and how to prepare for teams of higher caliber you see in the playoffs.”
Next in line
If there’s anyone that can challenge the Crusaders’ top spot, it’s the Vikings. With a fifth-year quarterback in Christian Alexander, a UCLA-bound running back in T.J. Simmons and help from Winter Haven transfer Keland White on the ground, Lakeland Christian should be a playoff team, if not the district champ.
Berkeley finished near the bottom of the pack last season, but expect a turnaround and fight for a playoff spot. Quarterback Brad Mayes has improved in the offseason, and if he’s able to keep Berkeley Prep strong down the stretch — when the Bucs struggled the most last year — things could get interesting in this competitive district.
4 Players from Tampa Catholic’s 2013 state semifinalist team who are now on Division I rosters.
60.2 District-leading tackles per game by Berkeley Prep. Joe Schiano and his 8.9 per game are back to head up the defense.
36 Sacks tallied by Tampa Catholic a year ago, most in the district. Junior Malik Barrow was responsible for 13 of those.
5,452 Passing yards accrued by fifth-year Lakeland Christian starting quarterback Christian Alexander. Talk about reps.
Players to watch
QB Christian Alexander, Sr., Lakeland Christian: This Florida International commit has started every year since eighth grade. A stat for opposing defenses: He was intercepted only four times last year in 206 attempts.
WR Nate Craig, Jr., Tampa Catholic: One of the nation’s top 2016 recruits and a recent Auburn commit, Craig’s ability to make jaw-dropping receptions should be a big help to the Crusaders, provided they have a quarterback that can get him the ball.
DB Kaleel Gaines, Sr., Frostproof: The recent Michigan State commit comes from a family of good athletes, and he’ll be joined this season by brother D’angelo — a running back who recorded more than 1,000 yards for Winter Haven last season.
WR Jacob Mathis, Jr., Berkeley Prep: Mathis led the Bucs in receiving yards (330) last season, and with a quarterback who’s got another year under his belt, the two could put on a show.
RB TJ Simmons, Sr., Lakeland Christian: The UCLA commit had more than 1,200 yards rushing last season. Now that he’s joining forces with White, Simmons could get away with a whole lot more.
Mark your calendar
Berkeley Prep at Lakeland Christian, Sept. 18: For a Berkeley Prep team that lost three district games by the skin of its teeth, every 3A-4 game will be a big one for the Bucs. A rematch with Lakeland Christian in Week 4, though, might be the biggest. The Bucs led by a touchdown at halftime last season before allowing the Vikings to tie it up at the end of regulation. And in what would begin a trend of close losses, Berkeley Prep lost 27-24 in double overtime.
Returning district leaders
Rushing yards: Lakeland Christian’s TJ Simmons, 1,257
Rushing TDs: Simmons, 11
Passing yards: Lakeland Christian’s Christian Alexander, 1,865
Passing TDs: Christian, 22
Receiving yards: Lakeland Christian’s RB Marlow, 571
Receiving TDs: Marlow, 8
Tackles: Tampa Catholic’s Cody Endris, 83
Sacks: Tampa Catholic’s Malik Barrow, 13
Interceptions: Endris, 4
Predicted order of finish
Ranked by the Winter Haven News Chief’s Bill Kemp
1. Lakeland Christian
3. Frost Proof
4. Fort Meade
“Right now as I see it, Berkeley Prep is probably the best team in our district as it stands.” — Tampa Catholic coach Mike Gregory