We're rolling out daily district previews for all 78 varsity football teams in the area. Today we look at an all-east Hillsborough County district that loves tight games.
Districts probably don't get much more even than this one, which last year featured a three-way tiebreaker to settle things and true slobberknocker type of league scores like 14-13 (Plant City over Durant), 19-13 (East Bay over Plant City), 11-10 (Strawberry Crest over Durant), 10-7 (East Bay over Durant) and 12-10 (Durant over Brandon). Even the two bottom dwellers, Durant and Brandon, were just a few plays from contending,. The Eagles lost two of their district games by three points and Durant dropped three by a combined five points. East Bay eventually prevailed, with the runnerup spot going to Plant City. Truthfully, we think those are probably the two teams left standing again.
As usual, Plant City is still the favorite, though IMG did the whole district a favor by luring four-star receiver T.J .Chase to Bradenton. Still, the Raiders have more athletes than everyone else in the district, a potentially strong running game and the best defensive player in Sawyer Dawson. Turning all that talent into a district champion, though, has been the problem over the years. But if the Raiders can come closest to reaching their maximum potential, they are the team to beat.
Next in line
East Bay has to revamp its backfield, but with a system in place that shouldn't be as big a problem as it is at other places. But the reason we think the Indians will be chasing closest to Plant City is it defense, led by Tennessee commitment and HomeTeam 100 member Marques Ford. The defensive line is one of the best around, the linebackers are solid and the defensive backfield might quietly be the best in the district. But remember: the Indians won six games by seven points or fewer, including two one-point wins. A swing of fortune in the other direction can make the difference between first and last in this league.
Durant found ways to lose last season, and coach Mike Gottman says that can't be repeated. The Cougars, who will field a potent backfield in new quarterback Erick Davis and returning running backs Chris Atkins and Kadarius Griffin, lost two district games by one point and another by three. If they can hold a lead or two this season, they could make a run at a playoff spot. Strawberry Crest was in the three-team tiebreaker last season and can beat anyone in the district, and Brandon seems to be heading in the right direction. Though a playoff spot might be a year away for the Eagles, we'd be surprised if they didn't pull off an upset that affects the race.
0 Touchdown passes by Brandon quarterbacks last season
10 Blocked field goals by Brandon last season
6-4 and 6-5 Height of Durant's two leading receivers from 2013, tight end Joe Williamson and wideout Garrett Rentz
100 Percentage of kicks Durant's Derek Wells converted last year (6-for-6 on field goals, 9-for-9 on PATs)
2 200-yard games for Strawberry Crest's Tristan Hyde before a season-ending injury last year. He's back.
93 Percent of East Bay's yards of total offense from last year that graduated, including 96 percent from the running game
19 Combined sacks last year by East Bay's Marques Ford and Eric Latortue
1,175 Yards of offense Austin Carswell (now at Plant City) had for Strawberry Crest last season (930 passing, 216 rushing, 29 receiving)
Players to watch
DT Anthony Clayton, Sr., East Bay: While Marques Ford and Eric Latortue are highly thought of, coach Frank LaRosa believes Clayton could emerge as the best of the trio.
LB Sawyer Dawson, Sr., Plant City: Dawson, a Purdue commit, led the Raiders with 87 tackles, 12 for loss last season, and will be back to lead a linebacker corps assistant coach Greg Meyer said should be the highlight of the defense.
RBs Kadarius Griffin and Chris Atkins, Durant, Srs.: Both rushed for more than 400 yards last season. Griffin has a ton of potential; and Atkins has been primed for a breakout season, but injuries have slowed him. He's healthy now and looks ready.
DB/OLB John Preyer, Sr., Brandon: Preyer is a throwback player who excels in the classroom. The honor roll student will be counted on heavily to seal the edge for the Eagles.
QB Tristan Hyde, Sr., Strawberry Crest: Hyde is a three-year starter under center but will look to rebound after he went down in the third game of 2013 with a season-ending knee injury. He threw for more than 2,100 yards and 20 TDs as a sophomore.
Mark your calendar
Plant City at Durant, Sept. 19: You can throw a dart at the district schedule and hit a meaningful game, but we think this is the one to open up your piggy bank for. The rivals played a thriller last season, with the Raiders coming up with a stop on a two-point attempt with five minutes left, then a defensive stop in the final seconds for a 14-13 victory. Durant opens with Armwood, Sickles and Tampa Bay Tech before starting league play vs. the Raiders, so how it survives that gauntlet could determine if it is a playoff contender.
Returning district leaders
Rushing yards: Plant City's Sterling Day, 514
Rushing TDs: Day, 7
Passing yards: Plant City's Austin Carswell, 930
Passing TDs: Carswell, 13
Receiving yards: Durant's Garrett Rentz, 294
Receiving TDs: Rentz, 3
Tackles: Plant City's Sawyer Dawson, 87
Sacks: East Bay's Marques Ford, 10
Interceptions: Brandon's Damon Spencer, Dawson 3
Predicted order of finish
From an anonymous coach in the district
1. Plant City
2. East Bay
5. Strawberry Crest
"Our goal it to win a district title, and we feel like we've got a great shot at that. Even with the loss of the seniors, even with TJ leaving, we've gotten stronger. It's almost been addition by subtraction." — Plant City assistant coach Greg Meyer
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.
Correspondents Steve Lee and Brandon Wright contributed to this report.
HomeTeam 2014 football Class 7A, District 8