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Clearwater, Tarpon Springs have a lot riding on games

Tarpon Springs High School sits on a road that peacefully winds around Whitcomb Bayou and leads to the Gulf of Mexico.

Clearwater High School is a complex of buildings bordered by the noise and rush of traffic on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

Beyond their environments, the similarities begin.

The two schools are coated in tradition, cemented in their communities and proud of their sports teams.

The Clearwater Tornadoes.

The Tarpon Springs Spongers.

Today and Friday, the two schools meet.

At 7 tonight, the girls volleyball teams gather at the Tarpon High gymnasium. The winner takes the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship.

At 7 p.m. Friday, Tarpon's football team travels south to Clearwater High's Jack White Stadium. Clearwater is not only celebrating its homecoming game, the Tornadoes are trying to remain in the chase for a state playoff berth. Tarpon can clinch a berth and the district title with a win.

"Even when we weren't in the same district, the kids always got up to play Clearwater," Tarpon football coach Don Davis said. "It's always been a good game and, now, we're in the same district."

District winners and second-place teams advance to the state football playoffs. Tarpon is an annual playoff participant. Clearwater has not been to the playoffs since 1978. The Tornadoes have already lost to East Lake 13-0, and are 2-1 in the district. They must beat Tarpon (3-0) to keep their hopes alive.

In volleyball, a Clearwater- Tarpon Springs championship match is not new. In the past 16 years, Clearwater has won 11 conference volleyball titles and Tarpon Springs four _ all in the past five years.

But this season, Tarpon returned one full-time starter (Shannon Cooper) and brought in a new coach (Stefanie Decker). The Spongers appeared ready to fall, and were upset two weeks ago by Pinellas Park. But with unexpected wins over Lakewood and East Lake last week, Tarpon stayed in the race with a 12-1 record.

"We knew several teams in the conference would be strong," Clearwater coach Anne Balderson said, "and that Tarpon would be one of them."

Clearwater (13-0), with consistent spiker Stacey Roberts, is favored. But a familiar presence will not be there. Principal Ed Evans, a frequent spectator at his school's sporting events, will be busy tonight with homecoming activities.

"I try to go to a majority of them," Evans said of the games. "No. 1, I like to and, No. 2, I think the kids appreciate seeing the principal there."

Evans knows sports, beginning with his stint as freshman football coach at Seminole High in 1961. He also coached baseball and was the head basketball coach for 10 years at Northeast High until 1976. His teams played the Spongers.

"It seemed like it took forever to get to Tarpon Springs," said Evans, of the bus trips through undeveloped north Pinellas County.

John Nicely's Clearwater football teams also played Tarpon. Nicely was the Tornadoes coach for five years until 1982. He also was a guidance counselor, then assistant principal at Clearwater.

Now, Nicely is principal of Tarpon Springs High.

"Clearwater and Tarpon Springs are similar in a lot of ways," Nicely said. Tarpon Springs "has the tradition and it is a great community school."

Even the nickname _ Spongers _ reflects the Tarpon Springs community and its sponge diving history.

Nicely will be at tonight's volleyball match. He's familiar with the sport. His daughter Julie played for Clearwater (Class of '92) and now plays for Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

The Spongers are underdogs. Cooper is recovering from the chicken pox and is questionable. Still, Tarpon is improving since its loss to Pinellas Park.

"Other than that match, we've really improved," Decker said. "If we play like we're capable of playing, we'll be okay."

In football, the edge appears on the side on Tarpon, which earlier beat East Lake 17-14 in overtime.

"They have a pretty good football team, and they run the ball real well," Clearwater coach Tom Bostic said.

Clearwater also runs the football well. It ought to be a good football game.

It should be a good volleyball match.

It is the Tornadoes and the Spongers.

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