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East Lake entrenched as Pinellas County's premier program

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Thu. August 28, 2014 | Bob Putnam | Email

East Lake entrenched as Pinellas County's premier program

EAST LAKE — You get the feeling every time East Lake High School coach Bob Hudson walks out of his office, he trips over another student longing to become part of the football program or a college coach eyeing one of his prized prospects.

At a time when many bay area programs are struggling to field junior varsity teams, the Eagles are overflowing with 160 players, including a record 107 on junior varsity. Because the program has become so popular, Hudson had to turn away students who wanted to join once classes began two weeks ago.

The varsity roster is filled with so much talent, 11 of the 22 seniors last season went on to play in college. This season, more than 125 colleges from all levels have stopped by Hudson’s office since the spring to look at his players, some with multiple visits.

To get an idea of how stacked the Eagles have become, consider that after Jake Hudson was named starting quarterback last season, the other three battling for the job — Garrison Bryant, Jordan Leston and Brandon Swift — eventually transferred and are now starting for other schools.

The only thing East Lake appears to lack is enough playing time to distribute among its stars and stars-in-the-making.

• • •

With an overabundance of wealth among top-tier recruits, it’s little wonder the Eagles have become the darlings of Pinellas County with a combined 33-7 record, two region final and one state semifinal appearance the past three seasons.

Despite graduating several key starters, East Lake still is favored to win another district title this season and make another deep run in the playoffs.

“This is what I envisioned when I got here,” Hudson said. “I don’t know if I could have imagined the numbers we have but those things come with success.”

After spending seven seasons as an assistant at East Lake, Hudson was promoted to the school’s head coach in 2003. His baptism into coaching did not go exactly as planned. He lost the opening game to — gasp! — rival Tarpon Springs. The following week came another loss to Dunedin.

The Eagles rallied to win key district games to advance to the postseason as a runnerup. That year they beat Northeast in the first round, marking the first playoff win for the program since 1995.

Hudson continued to build the program — on and off the field. He started the Blue Crue, the school’s student section that now has more than 400 members and organizes tailgate parties two hours before home games.

“What I wanted to create was a Friday night lights atmosphere where the whole town shuts down to come and watch a football game,” Hudson said.

East Lake remained a consistent playoff contender, but the breakthrough that transformed a good program into a great one came in 2011 when the Eagles advanced to the region final for the first time before losing in overtime to eventual state champion Plant.

Since then they have become state title contenders. Last year, the Eagles arguably had the greatest regular season in Pinellas County history, going undefeated, recording a school-record five shutouts and outscoring opponents 603-114. So dominant was East Lake, it had a running clock because of the mercy rule in all but one regular-season game.

• • • 

By rocketing to the top of the county, the Eagles have continued a seismic shift with most of the football powerhouses now residing in the north part of Pinellas after decades of dominance in the south. East Lake also has shed the notion that its athletes are only successful among the country club set.

“Football has become a pretty big deal up here,” senior running back Drew Couto said. “If you wear any kind of East Lake gear out in public, you are recognized, whether it’s the mall, the grocery store. All anyone wants to talk about is football.”

What’s the recipe for creating a juggernaut? Like most successful football programs, continuity among the coaching staff is key. Nearly every assistant on Hudson’s staff has been with the program at least four years, some throughout Hudson’s tenure. Two that left currently are head coaches elsewhere — Donnie Abraham at Clearwater and Jason Messamore at Gulf.

Another factor is talent. Quarterback Pete DiNovo, who played from 2010-12, became the county’s career leader in passing yards and touchdowns. On Saturday, he will be the first freshman quarterback to start at Central Florida since Daunte Culpepper in 1995.

Last year’s senior class included defensive back Devin Abraham (USF), left tackle Mason Cole (Michigan) and receiver Artavis Scott (Clemson), who are all expected to have significant playing time in college. Cole is the first freshman to ever start at left tackle for the Wolverines.

This year’s senior class includes three players — kicker Daniel LaCamera (Texas A&M), linebacker Carson Lydon (Virginia Tech) and defensive back Justin Strnad (Wake Forest) — who have already signed with Division I programs. Receiver George Campbell, considered one of the top recruits in the nation, will decide between Florida, Florida State and LSU within the next month.

It doesn’t hurt that East Lake has a sterling academic reputation with the football program winning the award for highest grade-point average for eight straight years.

All of that played a part in Lydon’s decision to attend East Lake when his family moved from North Carolina before his junior year.

“I wanted to gain exposure in football and they had a lot of great players that put the program on the map,” Lydon said. “Plus, I heard it was a real good academically. Put all of that together, and it made my decision real easy.”

Now that the Eagles have made a happening event, there is pressure to stay among the state’s elite.

That’s fine with the players.

“We love it,” Jake Hudson said. “Pressure is what makes you work even harder because we all want to have that feeling of playing in front of huge crowds in big-time games.”

Contact Bob Putnam at putnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam. 

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