We're rolling out daily district previews for all 78 varsity football teams in the area. Today we look at a mixed Hillsborough/Pasco County district.
Sickles and Tampa Bay Tech were supposed to be the teams to beat last season, but the Titans stumbled down the stretch and Gaither sneaked in for the runnerup spot behind the Gryphons. But the Titans, who missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, are intent on getting back to the postseason. Gaither and the others will have something to say about that.
Sickles has the best player in the district, and that's enough to convince us that the Gryphons are still the team to beat. Ray Ray McCloud III will line up at running back and wide receiver, and is on a mission to win a state championship. Quarterback Isaac Holder had a good 2013 and could be great in 2014. The Gryphons have solid offensive and defensive lines, and very good linebackers. If they manage to get cornerback Nate Ferguson and athlete Trey Fullwood eligible, and cornerback Issac Levay decides he misses football and returns, they will be even tougher to beat.
Next in line
Tampa Bay Tech figured to contend for a playoff spot in the spring, but after a big summer the Titans are setting their sights on the district title. They return quarterback Deon Cain and wide receiver Daquon Green, are rebuilding the offensive line with big bodies and have a defense that might be the best in the district. That's a winning formula only enhanced by the addition of three key transfers from Middleton who will all start and an influx of freshmen who should not only make the Titans one of the youngest teams in Tampa Bay, but also one of the best.
Any of the district's other teams — Gaither, Steinbrenner, Freedom or Wiregrass Ranch — could sneak into the playoff picture, but it will require a herculean effort. Everyone but Wiregrass Ranch (Shane Bucenell) has to replace its quarterback from a year ago, and while each team has a star or two, none can match the depth of the favorites. The Cowboys may be the most dangerous group of the bunch, and coach Jason Stokes has a track record of getting teams you might not expect into the postseason.
8 Playoff victories for Gaither
6 Combined playoff victories of every other team in district
2 Teams that averaged more than 5 yards a rush last season: Tampa Bay Tech (5.4) and Sickles (7.2)
3 Rushing touchdowns last year by Freedom
26 Rushing touchdowns by Sickles' Ray Ray McCloud III
.500 Combined winning percentage of district teams vs. non-district competition
Players to watch
QB Isaac Holder, Sr., Sickles: McCloud may be the star, but with the Gryphons running lots of read-option stuff this season, Holder could follow in the footsteps of Deiondre Porter and Dwayne Lawson with a 2,000-yard passing, 1,000-yard rushing type of season. He's got that kind of potential.
QB Deon Cain, Sr., Tampa Bay Tech: The Titans will go as far as their leader takes them, and Cain is focused like a laser on going out with a huge season and proving he is more than just an athlete playing quarterback.
LB Jaye Miner, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch: The FAU commit led the district with 131 tackles. And though the linebacker corps is young, the 6-foot-3, 187-pound Miner is determined to use his leadership and athletic ability to hold the group together.
WRs Johnny Rodicio and Sayff Saed, Srs., Freedom: Both players are versatile, with the ability to get open and make catches as receivers or run the offense from under center if they have to. Their senior leadership will be important as the Patriots try to survive the loss of their best player, defensive end Scott Patchan, to IMG.
WR/KR Kezio Snelling, Sr., Steinbrenner: The Warriors' top recruit had 1,341 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns last season. He has offers from several Division I programs, including Cincinnati, Rutgers and Purdue.
RB Curtis Wilder, Sr., Gaither: With a new emphasis on the run game, Wilder could produce a lot more than his 278 yards in 2013. Stokes will likely lean on the 5-foot-8, 180-pound running back to lead the way in the ground game.
Mark your calendar
Gaither at Tampa Bay Tech, Oct. 24: The bigger game may be a week later when Tech hosts Sickles, but this one sets that up. Last year, the Cowboys beat Tech and went on to the playoffs, while the deflated Titans were beaten by Sickles the following week. It's likely both teams will be in the playoff hunt when this game rolls around, and one team will leave heartbroken again.
Returning district leaders
Rushing yards: Sickles' Ray Ray McCloud III, 2,316
Rushing TDs: McCloud, 26
Passing yards: Tampa Bay Tech's Deon Cain, 1,945
Passing TDs: Sickles' Isaac Holder, 18
Receiving yards: Steinbrenner's Kezio Snelling, 556
Receiving TDs: Snelling, 6
Tackles: Wiregrass Ranch's Jaye Miner, 131
Sacks: Steinbrenner's Andre Washington, 11
Interceptions: Sickles' Carter Mulroe, Freedom's Aaron Cox and Tampa Bay Tech's Isaiah Brown, 2
Predicted order of finish
From an anonymous coach in the district
2. Tampa Bay Tech
4. Wiregrass Ranch
"There has not been a whole lot of talk about us and I like that. I think we're going to be one of those surprise teams this year." — Tampa Bay Tech coach Jayson Roberts
More football online
Want to know more about these teams? Catch up on previous installments? We've got individual previews chock full of more players to watch, schedules and more. Check out tampabay.com/hometeam.
Staff writer Kelly Parsons and correspondent Jeff Odom contributed to this report.
HomeTeam 2014 football Class 7A, District 7