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LETO FALCONS // Small and scrappy _ again

(ran TP edition)

He stands 5 feet 10, weighs 155 pounds and does not have the classic quarterback build. He doesn't look like a Bob, either.

But as with many Leto players, his looks are deceiving. Jesse Lowrey is the starting quarterback, albeit for a team that rarely throws. And yes, he does answer to "Bob," a name he claimed at the first practice last year.

Although Lowrey may not be an everyday Bob, he is a perfect fit for Leto coach Alex Albert, who takes pride in turning his always undersized squad into a district contender on an annual basis.

"I could be taller and weigh a lot more, for sure," Lowrey said. "But this is a team of small guys. We're a team that never gives up and is always fighting."

Lowrey's story is that of the underdog. He never had played quarterback before coming out as a junior and splitting time with Ronnie Lawrence, then taking over as the starter in the season-ending win at Countryside.

His story is in line with that of many Leto players. Small and scrappy, they might not get much of a look at other schools. But at Leto, they're part of a proven formula. With the same type of team, Albert won a district trophy in 1991 and came within a game of a three-way tie last year.

"We always stress that we will never be ahead on paper," Albert said. "But every year we have a bunch of tough, scrappy kids. The kids that come to Leto have to be tough to survive in these neighborhoods. That makes for good football."

The Falcons finished 6-4 last season and stayed close in every game, including a 28-10 loss to No. 2 Sarasota Riverview in which Leto hung in until late in the fourth quarter. Leto, which has knocked off the district champ in each of the last three seasons, had again sneaked up on a giant.

"It's business as usual again this year," Albert said. "The little guys from Leto are ready for anybody."

Passing game: Leto hardly threw the ball last season, relying mostly on the running of the departed Ray Fletcher. The Wing-T set is back, but with a no-huddle offense installed, Leto will be looking to throw at least 10 times a game.

Lowrey will have a reliable target in Paul Skidmore, who had eight receptions last year. He also will be throwing to the speedy Lawrence, who moved over from quarterback.

Running game: The versatile Fletcher graduated and is at Division II Benedictine College. Albert said there's no replacement for a talent of Fletcher's caliber, but he has a stable of backs willing to try.

Kariem Webb, who averaged 5 yards a carry in 1994, and Danny Rauscher are expected to start in the two-wing set. Franklin Roche, Andre Hagins and Allan Rodriguez, a sprinter on Leto's track team, should receive substantial time as well.

Offensive line: All five starters graduated. With the coaching of Mike Heldt, who played for a national champion at Notre Dame, a solid group of replacements should develop. Mark Whidden, a 270-pounder, will start at right tackle. Nick Sanchez, Emilio Carmona, John Hutchinson and Richard Forbes will line up alongside Whidden.

Defensive line: Brian Bistany is the sole returning starter. The line is raw but has some size in tackle Mike Rodriguez, who weighs 260 pounds. Brothers Chris and Ben Nenno return with some starts between them.

Linebackers: Albert anticipates he will blitz this unit heavily. Leo Moss and Mike Santos are returning starters and will be joined by Jamall Woody.

Defensive backs: The offensive backfield will also double as the defensive backfield. Lawrence, Webb, Rodriguez and Hagins will rotate in with one-way cornerback Tim Doolittle.

Kicking: Skidmore will punt and is contesting soccer player Jimmy Thomas for placekicking duties.

The coach: Albert has shaped a competitive team in each of his seven years at Leto. With a revamped Class 6A, District 7, his task of building a contender will be tougher.

Outlook: Size and depth are annual question marks at Leto. Heart is not. If the Falcons can duplicate their giant-killing powers of years past, then contending for one of two playoff berths may not be out of the question.

AT A GLANCE

Coach: Alex Albert, eighth season (37-34).

Assistant coaches: Mike Heldt, Jim Lavalee, Andy Lucas, Dave Mitchell, Frank Rose, Larry Siegel, Derek Stewart, Tom Sullivan, Sam Sutton.

Colors: Red and gold.

Stadium: Falcon Stadium, 4409 W. Sligh Ave., Tampa.

Class: 6A, District 7.

Playoff appearances: 1991; 1993.

Last playoff appearance: Class 5A _ Lost to Apopka 33-0.

1994 results (6-4)

Plant 28-0 W

at Hillsborough 35-6 L

Plant City 10-7 L

at Gaither 37-7 W

Bloomingdale 36-12 W

King 45-7 W

at Chamberlain 7-6 W

Sara. Riverview 28-10 L

at Brandon 22-12 L

at Countryside 17-6 W

Glory Days

One of Leto's more memorable seasons came in 1978, when a 9-1 Falcons team met up with Seminole in the Suncoast Bowl at Clearwater High. Led by quarterback Mark Trimble, Leto built a 21-0 first-half lead and then battled to hold on to that advantage. The Warriors closed to within two points, and was driving for another score when linebacker Robert Berube forced a fumble and recovered the ball on the Falcons 4-yard line to preserve a 21-19 win.

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