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FRIENDS AT WAR

TONIGHT'S GAME PITS THE SPONGERS AGAINST THEIR BIGGEST RIVALS - THEIR EAST LAKE PALS.

Dillon Goodell and Cody Thurber have known each other almost all their lives. The 17-year-olds lived in the Explorers Cove community for a while. They went to Tarpon Springs Middle School together. Goodell still hangs at Thurber's house on the weekends and plays video games. The two high school seniors are friends.

Until 7:30 tonight.

That's when Goodell will pull on the maroon jersey of Tarpon Springs High and Thurber will wear the royal blue of East Lake High.

It's the biggest high school football rivalry in the county, generated when East Lake was built and took part of what had been Tarpon territory. Thus many players have to put aside friendship in the quest for local bragging rights.

"We are enemies on the field but friends off," said Goodell, a Tarpon Springs linebacker and fullback. "But the winner of the game gets to talk smack. It's all in fun, but we like to win."

Thurber agreed. The smack talking is fun but intense, and he gets a double dose. Older brother Jimmy Thurber was an All-Conference safety with the Spongers. Jimmy Thurber, 21, graduated in 2006.

"This game is everything," said Cody Thurber, an outside linebacker. "It's bragging rights forever. There are no words to explain it. The season almost feels like a failure if you don't win that game, even if you make it to the playoffs, it's still not the same."

In the late 1980s Tarpon Springs was becoming a Pinellas County football powerhouse. Then East Lake High opened in 1987 a few miles to its east with the same city designation of Tarpon Springs.

Football players who had gone to middle school together for years and who dreamed of playing at Tarpon Springs High were forced to a new school. East Lake players set out to establish their own football legacy.

Then an assistant coach at Tarpon Springs High and now its head coach, George Kotis said for some strange reason, it appeared that when the district drew the first student assignment lines, East Lake ended up with the majority of the offensive and defensive line, and the Spongers landed the running backs and quarterbacks. Gutted along the lines, he said the Spongers embarked on rebuilding the program.

Kotis always has been a bit concerned about the timing of the rivalry game.

"As a coach, I don't like it because the players get a little more what they call 'jacked up' for the East Lake game," Kotis said. "We've had 9-1 seasons because after East Lake, we would lose the following game because there would be a let down from the battle."

Kotis noted that Tarpon Springs has never lost a game (8-0) at East Lake's stadium and called it the school's "second home field." The Spongers lead the series, which will be played for the 20th year tonight, 14-5.

Bob Hudson has been the head coach at East Lake for seven years and with the program for 14. He called the rivalry "healthy."

"This is stuff they will talk about forever," Hudson said of the players. "Everybody remembers that last game, no matter how long the rivalry. These kids see each other at the mall, they went to elementary and middle school together, and this game just gets them excited."

Matt LeClair, 17, and a senior inside linebacker and fullback at East Lake will go nose-to-nose with good friends he has on Tarpon Springs High's team. He said the game is like no other.

"Everybody comes out," he said. "Everyone is watching. It's different."

Teammate Chad Hill, 17, agreed.

"It's not like we made it what it is," the senior linebacker said about the rivalry. "We were born into it."

But all agree, no matter the final score, once they move beyond the gridiron, the friendships remain intact.

"We play as hard as we can, they play as hard as they can," said Clay Paino, 17, a Tarpon Springs High offensive tackle and defensive end who's been friends with East Lake players all his life.

"It's pretty important that you put it all out there on the field. But after the game, you still hang out like everyday friends. The game doesn't change that in the end."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or 727-09-6026

About this series

This is the third story in the Beyond the Gridiron series, in which Tarpon Springs reporter Demorris A. Lee takes a look at the Spongers football program from different perspectives.

This week, we put the spotlight on friendship and rivalry.

To see previous installments, visit Hometeam.tampabay.com/

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