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Wharton's future hopes rest with underclassmen

(ran NTP edition)

Wharton High coach Dan Acosta said his football program has a bright future. The Wildcats have struggled on the field, getting their only victory by forfeit when first-year Blake used an ineligible player.

"We're trying to build a foundation here," Acosta said. "We have some good young talent, and it just needs experience. Already, we have gotten some good experience."

Especially on the junior varsity level, which is perhaps the biggest reason for Acosta's optimism.

The 48-player junior varsity Wildcats completed a 3-2 season with a 21-6 victory over King. Wharton also defeated first-year rival Sickles and Tampa Bay Tech. Losses were to Gaither and Chamberlain. Twenty-two of the Wharton JV players were promoted to the varsity team.

"I've never seen as much confidence on a junior varsity team," said Wharton JV coach Mark Howlett, a former St. Petersburg High defensive back, who played on the 1983 Class 3A state runner-up team that lost to Pensacola Escambia and running back Emmitt Smith.

"The amazing thing is most of these kids had never played organized football before. Through a lot of hard work and enthusiasm, they overcame a lot of obstacles."

During a bus trip to a road game, Howlett asked players to raise their hand if they had never played football before.

"So many hands were up, I couldn't see the back of the bus," Howlett said. "But they have relished this opportunity to compete and play. In the beginning, we were teaching them how to block, how to tackle, sometimes the proper way to put on your uniform.

"But these kids have learned fast. Our motto has been, "We Believe.' They will excel on the varsity. In a few years, I really believe Wharton can be a dominating program in the county."

Howlett said defense was the key to Wharton's JV success, particularly with a linebacking corps that included Joey Barnes and Tavoris Allen.

Quarterback Grant Manley was the offensive leader. Already, he has a lifelong highlight. Manley, promoted to varsity, threw the first touchdown pass in school history during a 12-6 loss to Sickles on Oct. 16.

Other offensive stars were tailback Wallace Nelson, wide receiver Marshall Anglin, tight end Harold Leath and offensive lineman Francesco La Piedra.

"One day, we'll look back on the first varsity and junior varsity teams with a lot of pride," Howlett said. "They were the ones who laid the foundation for the Wharton program. It's exciting to be part of something on the ground floor."

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