Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pinellas County poised to win first state football title

We feel almost guilty asking, but here goes.

After more than a century of playing football, and heading toward the 50th anniversary of the first modern-day high school state football championship — Coral Gables 16, Robinson 14 at Phillips Field in Tampa — we just have to ask:

Is this the year, Pinellas County, that one of your teams finally wins a state championship?

Yeah, we know, same (yawn) old question. You're tired of hearing it.

Truthfully, we're kind of tired of asking.

But one last time, because we can't resist.

The Associated Press ranks Clearwater Central Catholic No. 1 in Class 3A, Lakewood No. 2 in 5A, East Lake No. 5 in 7A and Largo No. 6 in 6A. There's more than a dozen BCS oral commitments among the teams with more to come.

So … this year?

• • •

CCC ended last season in the state semifinals, badly outclassed by a Fort Lauderdale University team some considered the best in the state (and Division I-AA, for that matter).

The Marauders return just about everyone — and added eight transfers — and University was bumped up a class, out of CCC's way.

So forgive us but, well, you know …

"It's so far out there, it's ridiculous to start thinking about those things," CCC coach John Davis said.

But Davis is a smart guy. He knows people have been talking about it since, oh, January. And in the age of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, recruiting websites, increased coverage of high school football and loudmouth prep columnists, well, here we are before the season's first official kickoff, asking.

"We've got four kids with Division I-A offers and two commitments (Caanan Brown to Virginia, Justus Reed to Florida) so I guess that's probably natural talk," Davis said. "But I tell the kids, don't listen to the noise outside this locker room. Because it really doesn't matter."

Davis said he doesn't care much about being first, but players talk about it. They know.

But that hasn't always been the case.

Todd Donohoe said the topic never came up as Dunedin played for a state championship in 1986 and '87.

The team's leading tackler as a linebacker and now the head coach at Freedom, Donohoe said he hears the question now, but when he was a kid "we didn't think it was a big deal."

But Dwight Kenon's late fourth-quarter touchdown run in 1986 for the Falcons was the last points a Pinellas County team scored in a state championship game. The county's three appearances since resulted in shutout losses: Dunedin (24-0 in 1987), Dixie Hollins (24-0 in 1995) and Admiral Farragut (69-0 in 2011).

The question started coming up. Here's part of the answer: bad luck.

Pinellas has fared as well as, and in some cases better than, Hillsborough County when it comes to putting players in college and the NFL.

But eight county teams have played in a state championship game — and all have lost.

St. Petersburg ran into Emmitt Smith's Escambia team in 1984, Dunedin lost to a nationally ranked Pine Forest team in 1987, Admiral Farragut was squashed by seven-time state champion powerhouse North Florida Christian.

And in 1986, Tarpon Springs and Dunedin hosted — hosted! — state championship games on the same night, and lost.

"It was heartbreaking," Donohoe said.

The bad luck extends beyond state title games.

The great Northeast teams in the mid 1990s ran into St. Thomas Aquinas, CCC ran into six-time champion Pahokee in a state semifinal and a Travis Henry-led Frostproof team another year, and Plant has gotten in the way of East Lake and Lakewood.

Largo is in the middle of a tremendous run, but losses in back-to-back state semifinals against Aquinas, a seven-time champion, in 2007-08 spoiled its best chances. Unless you want to count last year, when a 10-0 team laid a playoff egg against Armwood.

The Packers are hopeful again in 2013.

"It has definitely crossed my mind," said Packer wide receiver Raheem Harvey, "that going down in history would be big-time. Though to be the first Largo team would be bigger."

When Davis coached Countryside, his two best teams were beaten in the region final by Armwood ('03) and Plant ('09).

"I don't care how good you are, you have to be lucky," he said. "You have to avoid injuries, the breaks have to fall for you, all those things. And then, you've gotta kind of hit it right. The teams that have made a run are the teams that hit it right."

Lakewood could hit it right. The Spartans added a handful of impact transfers, who all returned to their zoned school, in the hope of making history.

Being first would be pretty cool.

"It'd be big for the team, and for me," said quarterback Ryan Davis, "and also for the city. We'd put Pinellas County on the map."

Lakewood coach Cory Moore doesn't mind being asked. And yes, for the record, he wants to be the first coach to the mountaintop.

If it isn't him, though, then somebody.

"I think it would be a huge deal," Moore said. "I think it would be a great thing, no matter who finally wins, for all the schools in the area."

But like John Davis and Largo's Rick Rodriguez and East Lake's Bob Hudson, Moore is working hard to keep his team from thinking too far ahead.

One game at a time, and all that.

"We don't even talk about it at practice," Ryan Davis said. "We're only worried about who we play this week: Countryside."

But it's harder away from practice, where talk is rampant.

"Yeah, there's lots of talk in school … everyone's pretty excited," he said.

Here we are, the start of the 2013 season, with the same old question.

Chances are, it's the last time we have to ask it.

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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