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Turmoil, turnover take a toll on Tarpon Springs’ rich football tradition

Among the challenges facing the game: inconsistency at the varsity head coach position and declining interest in the community’s youth league.
The varsity football team huddles on the field before a recent practice at Tarpon Springs High. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times) [ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 20
Updated Aug. 20

TARPON SPRINGS — Cedric Hill knew he had some rebuilding to do after taking over the varsity football program at Tarpon Springs High School two months ago.

He is the fourth head coach in a six-month span. The constant turnover took its toll with players either transferring to other schools or quitting.

There is no quick fix, especially without a feeder program currently in place to replenish the roster. The junior varsity program did not have enough players to field a team in 2018. And the city’s youth football organization, the Jr. Spongers, shut down this year because only a handful of players could afford the registration fee.

Hill found out just how much the program had deteriorated when six players showed up for his first scheduled workout — too few to even field a starting lineup.

“I knew what I was walking into when I took the job,” said Hill, who was an assistant the past four years. “Still, I was expecting at least 15 kids with a few others who would be on the way. I saw six, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m working with.’ ”

There were fears in the community that Tarpon Springs would not have a football team at any level since the school first started playing nearly 100 years ago.

Cedric Hill was a Tarpon Springs assistant for four years before taking over the head coach position a few months ago. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times) [ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]

Some of those concerns were raised at a commissioners meeting last week. Among the agenda items was a presentation by commissioner Connor Donovan asking for the city to donate $10,000 out of its budget to help cover registration costs with the youth football organization.

Donovan, 22, who played at Tarpon Springs from 2011-14, already pledged his support, donating his $8,000 salary to the youth sports leagues after he was elected to his seat in March. But it was not enough. He wanted his fellow commissioners to get behind his cause to help kick start football at the grassroots level.

Longtime fans, former coaches and parents all pleaded for more help from city leaders.

Hill spoke, too, assuring those in attendance that the varsity high school team would have enough players to get through the regular season.

“The wins and losses are not as important as getting this team structured and built the right way,” he said. “The wins are going to come. The important thing is getting these kids out here doing what they love doing. You do that and get the community behind you and roll through this season, then who knows what can happen.”

RELATED: Vital part of Tarpon Springs’ football program missing for 2018 season

For decades, football had the strongest fan base in this close-knit community. Players wear their jerseys on game days. Maroon and white balloons are attached to mailboxes of nearby houses before big varsity games. Spongers gear is sold at the local Walmart. Fans tailgate in the parking lots of local establishments.

Those traditions are still somewhat intact, but the roster has shrunk, along with the crowds. Part of that comes from other high schools now in the area. Anclote, East Lake and Palm Harbor University were all built within the past 35 years and are within a 15-mile radius of Tarpon Springs.

That takes away potential students, players and fans.

But there also has been a revolving door among coaches. Since Don Davis’ 11-year tenure ended in 2004, there have been eight coaching changes.

Offensive lineman Josh Cote high fives assistant coach Terrell White after deadlifting weights during a recent practice. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times) [ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]

The past year has been particularly hard for the players and the program. Last year’s coach, George Kotis, spent the first half of the season in Boca Raton with wife Artemis, who was battling Stage IV ovarian cancer. Artemis, a guidance counselor and beloved member of the community, died in October. Players consoled each other at Kotis’ house and attended the funeral.

Kotis stepped down in December, ending his second stint with Tarpon football; previously he had been part of the Spongers program from 1987-2010. Former Lakewood standout Aveion Cason was offered the job but turned it down. Kotis’ eventual replacement, Ed Schenk, lasted three months.

“What’s happened over the past few months has just been so sad,” Tarpon Springs principal Leza Fatolitis said. “What Coach Kotis endured and the players endured with the passing of his wife and the coaching changes that came after that.

“It’s been an unfortunate series of events, but we’re committed to the program and putting the best product on the field.”

But is it enough?

MORE PREP FOOTBALL: HomeTeam 15: Football rankings for Tampa Bay

“It starts at the top,” said Davis, now retired. “There needs to be an emphasis on the program with the administration. If that doesn’t happen, there might not be athletics at the school in another five to 10 years.”

Fatolitis said she has met with several parents to address their concerns. She says the team now counts 31 confirmed players. Four coaches also are part of the school’s staff, including Hill. The school also is expected to install a turf field at the stadium in April.

And the youth league will be running again next year after the commissioners approved the $10,000 donation.

“It’s hard with the kids when they see change like that,” Hill said. “You’re there today. I’m here tomorrow. That played a big part of why we started out with six. I just assured them that I’m here and I’m going to do my best to make sure these kids have everything they need.”

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam

Pinellas County football, Week 1

Clearwater Central Catholic at Berkeley Prep, 7

Carrollwood Day at St. Petersburg Catholic, 7

Melbourne Central Catholic at Calvary Christian, 7

Admiral Farragut at St. Stephen’s, 7

Gibbs at Boca Ciega, 7

Bradenton Christian at Indian Rocks Christian, 7

Shorecrest at Northside Christian, 7

East Lake at Nature Coast, 7:30

Plantation American Heritage at Clearwater, 7:30

St. Petersburg at Lakewood, 7:30

Northeast at Tarpon Springs, 7:30

Pinellas Park at Palmetto, 7:30

Osceola at Gulf, 7:30

Immokalee at Clearwater Academy, 7:30

Palm Harbor U. at Dixie Hollins, 7:30

Largo at Braden River, 7:30

Dunedin at Keswick Christian, 7:30

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