TARPON SPRINGS — The road that leads to Tarpon Springs High School is lined with signs of encouragement this week.
God Bless Our Team
Bad to the Bone
In recognition of the school football team's run in the state playoffs, Annette Alexiou Parr and a few neighbors lined the edge of Gulf Road with the white placards, including "#41" for Parr's son Michael, a senior linebacker.
"I've known most of the boys from kindergarten," said Parr, 50, a 1977 Tarpon Springs High graduate, as she stood in her front yard and waved at neighbors who honked as they passed by.
"I now work at the high school, my children have played sports there, we are third-generation Greeks in town and my husband graduated from Tarpon in 1971. They say it takes a village. This is it."
Tonight, many residents will follow the Spongers to Orlando for a gridiron battle against Edgewater High. It's Tarpon's first third-round playoff appearance since 1986.
"It's like we are playing for the whole town," said Savvas Damalos, a senior wide receiver and kick returner. "But we all grew up wanting to play Tarpon football and wanting to have a chance like this.
"We talked about it when we played football for the Junior Spongers and on up. We know the whole town is watching and we want to make them proud."
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That's the difference between Tarpon Springs High and many other high schools in the area, said Michael Billiris, who played quarterback on Tarpon Springs' 1968 team that went 0-10.
"It's a family tradition," said Billiris, 59, as he stood outside Island Wind Tours, the business he owns on the city's Sponge Docks, and chuckled about not having won a game his senior year. "My father played Tarpon football. I played Tarpon football and my son played."
Billiris said the football team has always been made up mostly of boys who were born and raised in Tarpon Springs.
"We are still a small, close-knit community," said Billiris, who lost his voice screaming at last week's game. "We don't pull players from a district or a wide area. It's mostly Tarpon, period."
Tarpon Springs' heritage is rich and widely known. The town of about 23,000 sits in northern Pinellas County where Greek descendents made cultivating the area's natural sponge into a livelihood.
Football has always been part of the town's fabric, said coach George Kotis, who grew up in the area.
"It just has always been a football town," Kotis said. "The reality is, most people don't move out of Tarpon and not too many move in. The constant is that one generation after another grew up on Tarpon football."
According to U.S. Census figures, Tarpon Springs' population increased by 5,495 in from 1990 to 2008.
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James Dorsett moved back to his hometown in 1970.
That same year, he purchased a maroon hat with the letter "T" on it. He's worn that hat, now a bit faded, to nearly every Tarpon Springs football game.
A former Spongers football player, Dorsett, 59, will have the same hat on tonight.
Dorsett said he is "Sponger born and Sponger raised." After graduating from Tarpon High in 1968, he went to Kentucky State, where he played football for a season before an injury ended his career.
He and his wife raised their two children in Tarpon Springs, where Ed Dorsett Park is named after his father. The children graduated from Tarpon High.
Since being back, Dorsett has missed very few football games. He was even at the 1986 championship game.
"We lost the game to Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High," Dorsett said. "I'll be there (tonight), too. There's always a certain amount of pride for community in Tarpon and we love to see our kids do well."
The faded hat with the "T" for Tarpon will be there, too. It's the "good luck charm," Dorsett said with a laugh.
On the other end of the Tarpon Springs spectrum are sixth-graders Terence Williams and Tristen McCord, both of whom played for the Junior Spongers football team this season.
As the two 12-year-olds waited for haircuts at C&C Executive Barbershop at S Walton and Tarpon avenues, they talked about going deep into the playoffs and one day playing football for Tarpon Springs High.
"Playing for the little league, this makes me look up to the high school team even more," Tristen said.
"This makes me proud that I'm from Tarpon Springs," Terence said. "Because it's my school and my town and the team I'm going to play for."
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.