In the spring of 2013, Northeast High looked to be one of the football teams to beat in Pinellas County. Then, over a few days in late July, everything fell apart.
Quarterback Ryan Davis, a heralded recruit in the class of 2015, transferred to Lakewood with three other starters, while two more moved on to Boca Ciega. Just like that, Northeast's promising season ended in a 1-9 mess that factored into coach Mike Jalazo stepping down.
And the transfer fever story line extends to 2014 — and more schools.
At least 17 marquee players from St. Petersburg-area programs have left this offseason for other county schools or IMG Academy in Bradenton. When preseason games start Friday, familiar faces in new places will dot many rosters.
St. Petersburg Catholic took the biggest hit, talentwise. Just last season, the Barons made the playoffs, boasted three underclassman running backs who compiled more than 3,000 yards and had a promising freshman offensive lineman who by spring had a handful of Division 1 offers. Those running backs — Tony Jones (IMG Academy), Stephon Williams (Calvary Christian) and Jacquan Fuller (Indian Rocks Christian) — along with lineman Dillan Gibbons (Northside Christian) all bolted. While those hits would be hard enough for most teams to absorb, the Barons also lost their starting quarterback and a key defensive back.
Six players, all projected starters, gone to other schools. Not the best way for first-year head coach Dave Cleppe to start the season.
"Nothing you can do about it," said Cleppe, a "glass-half-full" kind of coach. "All I can do is coach the players who are here."
The days of sticking with your neighborhood school may be gone.
"Back in the old days it was fun to play for your high school and it wasn't all about getting scholarships," said coach Joe Fabrizio, who has been at St. Petersburg High since 2006. "Now everyone believes that their son should get a scholarship. It doesn't always work that way."
Fabrizio saw three of his best players leave — to fellow public schools Lakewood, Gibbs and Northeast.
Even smaller private schools don't go unscathed. Class 2A Canterbury lost its top defensive back, Dontell Green, to Admiral Farragut. And sophomore receiver Zion Roland left to attend Lakewood. With a roster of about 25 players, the absence of two key starters can hurt.
"Everyone has this pipe dream that their kid is going to play Division 1 football," Canterbury coach Bill Jones said. "So you've got to go where you think you can get exposure. They are attracted to that eye candy of the winning programs. We're never going to win that. We have student-athletes where athlete comes second."
According to Florida High School Athletic Association rules, students may transfer to another school for academic reasons not athletic ones. In Pinellas, many schools offer specialty magnets like marine science or culinary arts. If students are accepted into a magnet, they don't have to attend their zoned schools.
The Pasco and Hillsborough county school districts, hoping to curb the rampant transfer of athletes, both have policies that require transfer students to sit out of sports for a year unless they meet certain criteria. A committee decides if the students are eligible for immediate athletic participation. Pinellas County has no such policy.
In most cases, academic reasons are given for moves. Junior wide receiver/defensive back Saivion Smith, a four-star recruit, left Boca Ciega in the spring to attend Lakewood, then transferred again to IMG before the new school year started.
"Saivion is doing okay, but he's not where we'd like him to be academically," said his father, Amp Smith, this summer. "Kids in the Class of 2016 now need a 2.3 (grade point average). We thought this was the best move to get him where he needs to be. IMG has smaller classes with college professors teaching."
Lakewood coach Cory Moore, whose Spartans made the Class 5A state semifinals a year ago, has been the beneficiary of many recent transfers. But even he hasn't been immune to movement. Aside from Smith, talented defensive back Tyrell Hubbard-Smith left the Spartans this summer to attend Gibbs.
"You can't get too excited about any of it," Moore said. "All of us coaches are in the same shoes. It happens to all of us. And most of the time, it's not the kid's (decision). I will say that."
Privately, coaches do get excited about transfers, either losing or getting them. It has become a case of the haves and have-nots. If a program has a recent history of winning, it tends to get a few more transfers.
St. Petersburg's Fabrizio said he doesn't sweat it.
"It's best in the long run," he said. "I don't want to coach a kid who doesn't want to be here, and I don't want a kid here who doesn't want to be here. It's not good for the locker room. I'll coach the kids who want to be here and we'll be just fine."
Contact Rodney Page at [email protected] Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.