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Tampa trio hopes to break state title drought

Three undefeated teams — Tampa Bay Tech, Jesuit and Berkeley Prep — have reached championship games in their respective classifications.
Jesuit outside linebacker Troy Bowles reacts after intercepting a pass against Miami Northwestern in the Tigers' state semifinal victory.
Jesuit outside linebacker Troy Bowles reacts after intercepting a pass against Miami Northwestern in the Tigers' state semifinal victory. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2021|Updated Dec. 9, 2021

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area has been waiting 10 years for one of its high school football teams to win a state title.

The dry spell finally looks as if it is in serious jeopardy.

Three undefeated teams — Tampa Bay Tech, Jesuit and Berkeley Prep — have reached championship games in their respective classifications.

The last time three teams from the area reached title games was 2011, when Admiral Farragut, Armwood and Plant advanced. The latter two won their finals, though Armwood eventually forfeited its championship for recruiting violations.

Hillsborough County also had three teams reach the pinnacle in 2010 when Jefferson, Plant and Armwood played for titles, with only Jefferson (15-0) coming away victorious.

The team with the best chance this year? On paper that looks like Jesuit (14-0), which is ranked No. 3 overall in the state and No. 11 nationally by MaxPreps. The Tigers’ opponent, Pensacola Pine Forest, is No. 9 in Florida, but the Eagles don’t appear to be as deep or as battle tested.

Jesuit running back Joquez Smith, pictured picking up yardage during a state semifinal victory over Miami Northwestern, has rushed for running back Joquez Smith 1,883 yards and scored 27 touchdowns.
Jesuit running back Joquez Smith, pictured picking up yardage during a state semifinal victory over Miami Northwestern, has rushed for running back Joquez Smith 1,883 yards and scored 27 touchdowns. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“But there is no way we’re taking anything for granted, because we know Pine Forest is good, because any team that makes it here is good,” said Jesuit coach Matt Thompson, who served as an assistant on two Armwood state championship teams (2003-04) and on the previously mentioned state finalists. “We have been working a long time to get here, so we’re not going to leave anything to chance.”

Jesuit reached the state semifinal five of the past six years, including the last three.

The Tigers have plenty of reasons to feel confident, starting with several quality victories, including a regular-season 24-21 win over Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (then ranked No. 4 in the nation) and a 37-12 state semifinal win over perennial nemesis Miami Northwestern.

“Everything and everyone is clicking right now,” Thompson said.

That means everyone from quarterback Luke Knight (2,164 passing yards, 27 touchdowns), to running back Joquez Smith (1,883 yards, 27 touchdowns), receiver Junior Vandeross (46 receptions, 747 yards, eight TDs), linebackers AJ Cottrill (123 tackles) and Troy Bowles (87 tackles), defensive backs Caleb Williams (84 tackles) and Wade Woodaz (74 tackles) and defensive end Peter Pesansky (64 tackles).

Thompson acknowledged that the school spirit is off the charts at Jesuit, which last won a state title in 1968. But he, like the other coaches in this year’s state championship games, made a point to wish the other state finalists all the best, including Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao, who has a long history with the Tigers.

Berkeley Prep running back Travis Bates, pictured completing a touchdown run against Clearwater Central Catholic, has rushed for 1,803 yards and 21 touchdowns on 158 carries.
Berkeley Prep running back Travis Bates, pictured completing a touchdown run against Clearwater Central Catholic, has rushed for 1,803 yards and 21 touchdowns on 158 carries. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Ciao, in fact, coached the last Jesuit team to reach a state final in 1992, when the Tigers lost 28-16 to Pasco.

Ciao, who came to Berkeley Prep in 2007, has now guided the Bucs (12-0) to their first state championship game. Like Jesuit, the Bucs came up just short last year when they lost 23-21 in a state semifinal to Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna — the year’s state championship opponent.

“We are going to try and execute every single play perfectly, which is what we have tried to do all season,” Ciao said. “To win, we’re going to have to play our very, very best.”

The good news is that the Bucs often have played nearly perfect, pounding opponents with a dynamic running attack that has racked up 3,560 yards and 50 touchdowns. Travis Bates has led the way with 158 carries for 1,803 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Xavier Townsend has rushed 107 times for 1,188 and 20 touchdowns. Townsend also has hauled in 18 receptions for 417 yards and seven touchdowns.

Berkeley, ranked No. 15 in the state, will have to contend with a tremendous defensive front from Chaminade-Madonna (10-1), which comes in ranked No. 5. The Lions’ defensive ends, Kenyatta Jackson and Jamaal Johnson, are committed to Ohio State and UCF, respectively.

Tampa Bay Tech quarterback Xavione Washington, pictured during a region final victory over Wharton, has 2,238 passing yards and 23 touchdowns this season.
Tampa Bay Tech quarterback Xavione Washington, pictured during a region final victory over Wharton, has 2,238 passing yards and 23 touchdowns this season. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

As tough as Berkeley’s challenge is, Tampa Bay Tech (14-0, No. 11 in the state) appears to have an equally daunting task against St. Thomas Aquinas (13-1, No. 4 in the state)l.

Aquinas, the defending champion which boasts a state-record 12 state football titles, has steadily improved after losing to Jesuit on Sept. 3.

But so has Tech.

The Titans, playing in their first state championship game, feature a solid quarterback in Xavione Washington (2,238 passing yards, 23 touchdowns), a bruising ground game led by James Evans (1,009 yards, 15 touchdowns), and dynamic corp of receivers led by Greg Gaines III (63 catches for 830 yards and 10 touchdowns).

Defensively, the Titans often have been devastating with their front four — Antonio Camon, Keyon Clark, Jahiem Borden and Donteye Drew — leading the way with a combined 115 tackles for loss and 41 sacks.

The question many ask is if the Titans will be able to handle the big moment as well as the experienced Aquinas?

“The moment is not going to be too big for us,” Tech coach Jayson Roberts said. “Our kids aren’t afraid of anybody.”

State finals

at Gene Cox Stadium, Tallahassee

Class 3A: Berkeley Prep vs. Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna, 7 p.m. Friday

at DRV PNK Stadium, Fort Lauderdale

Class 7A: Tampa Bay Tech vs. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, 7 p.m. Dec. 17

Class 6A: Jesuit vs. Pensacola Pine Forest, 7 p.m. Dec. 18

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