The first run to the national championship seemed predestined, with a team boasting two of the nation’s best defensive backs in Vernon Hargreaves III and Leon McQuay III, UCF-bound quarterback Pete DiNovo and a plethora of FBS-caliber offensive weapons.
Well, Team Tampa was stocked with blue-chip talent but seemed underwhelming compared with its previous edition and some of the other teams at the IMG 7-on-7 tournament over the weekend.
No matter. Led by Wharton quarterback and USF commit Chase Litton, Team Tampa defended its national title despite entering the tournament as the seventh-seeded team. Team Tampa brought the championship back to the bay area with a 25-24 win over highly touted South Florida Express Elite in the final Sunday.
“The reality is we didn’t have the names that we had in the past,” Team Tampa coach Woodrow Grady said. “But they proved they were more than capable.”
The surprising championship run started with Litton, a 6-foot-6 senior who entered the offseason as the area’s top quarterback prospect but with little of the fanfare common for most recruits of his stature.
Grady said Litton came to him a couple weeks before the tournament and made a bold prediction.
“He said to me, ‘Coach, we’re winning this thing,’ ” Grady said. “That’s what I love. When your quarterback comes in and has that kind of confidence, you just have to rally behind him.”
Litton went about living up to his promise by spreading the ball around to a deep receiving corps that included East Lake’s dynamic duo of Artavis Scott and George Campbell, Northeast’s Ryan Davis and Donterrio Fowler, Lakewood’s Joq Ellison and Largo’s Raheem Harvey.
He threw only one interception in two days of competition. And in the championship game against South Florida Express, Litton threw only four incompletions and didn’t commit a turnover.
“It feels great … these guys, the best talent in the world is on my team,” Litton said. “So we came out to make a statement this time.”
Said Grady: “There was not a better quarterback in the field. USF got a steal. (Litton) should have 30 offers.”
On defense, Team Tampa held up well against elite 7-on-7 competition despite the losses of Hargreaves (Florida) and McQuay (USC).
Grady specifically praised Armwood’s Aaron Covington, who also won defensive MVP at the Battle of the Bay 7-on-7 tournament Saturday; Gaither’s Matt Williams; Gibbs’ Maurice Hall; and East Lake’s Keon Brown.
They combined to twice defeat top-seeded South Florida Express Elite in the double-elimination tournament, once in the semifinals and again in the final. By some counts, 20 of the 24 players on Express’ roster are rated four- or five-star prospects by college recruiting services.
But by the end of the tournament Sunday, Team Tampa showed it had every bit the talent that some of the more highly regarded teams there did.
“We went against some pretty good teams,” Covington said. “But we knew our ability and what we could do.”
Another year and another championship has Grady already looking ahead to next summer.
“I’m going to see if us and the Miami Heat can do the same thing,” he said, laughing. “Of course, the Heat gets to keep LeBron (James) and (Dwyane) Wade, but Team Tampa has to reload.”
That has been no problem, so far.