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State semifinals unkind to Tampa Bay football teams

One thing is certain: South Florida remains a hurdle for teams all over the state to clear.
Lakewood's Artez Hooker (8) consoles Cornelius Mckenzie (10) after the Spartans fall 9-7 in the Class 4A state semifinals to Miami Booker T. Washington. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Lakewood's Artez Hooker (8) consoles Cornelius Mckenzie (10) after the Spartans fall 9-7 in the Class 4A state semifinals to Miami Booker T. Washington. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Dec. 1, 2019

Tampa Bay had a share of the spotlight in the state semifinals. Seven high school football teams made it this far in the playoffs, tying 2013 for most locals in a season.

The sheer volume was equal to other football hotbeds such as Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Miami. Area teams were represented in just about every class. Public and private schools. Large and small student enrollments.

On Friday, they played everywhere in the state. Gaither traveled to Pensacola. Steinbrenner went to Apopka. Clearwater Central Catholic, Jesuit and Seffner Christian headed to either Hollywood, Miami or Hialeah.

Two others, Armwood and Lakewood, served as hosts.

The matchups were tough. The circumstances difficult. All but one of the opponents had won at least one state title. And there were long bus trips, including one that ventured into another time zone and required an overnight stay.

This was the chance for the area to make its mark on the state level and move on to title games.

But as the final seconds ticked away in each of those semifinal contests, the outcomes were frustratingly familiar.

All seven area teams lost.

This marks the first time in seven seasons that no local program will move on to a state championship game.

There were several factors that led to so many defeats Friday. Bad bounces. Tough calls. And huge momentum swings.

Maybe jitters played a role. Gaither, Seffner Christian and Steinbrenner, all of which had magical runs, were playing in the semifinals for the first time — and traveling lengthy distances to face hostile crowds.

Sometimes an opponent, or area, is just better.

South Florida has seven teams playing for state titles the next two weeks — Miami Columbus (Class 8A), Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (7A), Miami Central (6A), Miami Northwestern (5A), Miami Booker T. Washington (4A), Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna (3A) and Hialeah Champagnat (2A).

Four Tampa Bay teams — Clearwater Central Catholic, Jesuit, Lakewood and Seffner Christian — lost to teams in that area.

The Marauders and Tigers have been through this before. This was the third straight season CCC has lost to Chaminade in the state semifinals. Jesuit has come up short in the semifinals four of the past five seasons. Three of those losses came against different teams in Fort Lauderdale or Miami, all of them on the road.

Lakewood had the closest outcome of all, losing 9-7 to the always powerful Tornadoes.

“I have to give our guys credit, they played their butts off,” Lakewood coach Cory Moore said. “They had a great season.”

Can there be breakthrough next season? That could be tough. Gaither and Steinbrenner will be hit hard by graduation.

But the junior class could be one of the most talented in the state, led by a trio of receivers — Armwood’s Agiye Hall, Plant City’s Mario Williams and Seffner Christian’s Michael Trigg.

Once again, the obstacles will come once locals reach this round and end up likely squaring off against teams from Fort Lauderdale and Miami again.

“I told the kids that next year, it will be the same thing again and we’re just going to have to figure out how to get past these teams from South Florida,” Jesuit coach Matt Thompson said after Friday’s loss.

Bob Putnam can be reached at


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