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4 Tampa Bay area high school football teams seek state finals berths

Berkeley Prep, Clearwater Central Catholic, Gaither and Plant all are two wins from state championships.
 
Clearwater Central Catholic quarterback Jershaun Newton, who has totaled nearly 2,700 yards this season, leads the 12-0 Marauders into Friday night's Class 1M state semifinal against Jacksonville Trinity Christian.
Clearwater Central Catholic quarterback Jershaun Newton, who has totaled nearly 2,700 yards this season, leads the 12-0 Marauders into Friday night's Class 1M state semifinal against Jacksonville Trinity Christian. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

TAMPA — A high school football season that began with widespread hope and humidity has been whittled to the prep version of the final four.

Only a quartet of area teams — Berkeley Prep, Clearwater Central Catholic, Gaither and Plant — has survived to see the dawn of December. All will compete Friday in state semifinal contests in their respective classifications, with a berth in the state championship game at stake.

Here’s a closer look at some standouts, story lines and even a sentimental favorite to monitor entering the penultimate Friday of the prep season.

Friday’s state semifinals

(All games at 7:30 p.m.)

Class 4M: Plant (11-2) at Miami Columbus (11-2)

Class 3M: Gaither (8-5) at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (12-1)

Class 2M: Berkeley Prep (11-2) at Plantation American Heritage (10-1)

Class 1M: Jacksonville Trinity Christian (9-3) at Clearwater Central Catholic (12-0)

State crown for Ciao?

Berkeley Prep's Dominick Ciao, completing his 34th season as a bay area prep head coach, leads the Buccaneers into Friday night's Class 2M state semifinals at Plantation American Heritage.
Berkeley Prep's Dominick Ciao, completing his 34th season as a bay area prep head coach, leads the Buccaneers into Friday night's Class 2M state semifinals at Plantation American Heritage. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Arguably the most glaring sentimental favorite of the area’s remaining teams is 70-year-old Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao, pursuing his first state crown in his 34th season as a local head coach.

Ciao, whose 17 years with the Buccaneers were preceded by a prosperous 17-year run at Jesuit (1986-2002), is seeking his third state finals appearance. His 1992 Jesuit squad and 2021 Berkeley team both qualified for the Class 3A title game but fell short.

A winner of more than 250 games, Ciao’s sprawling coaching tree includes Plant four-time state champion (and current Toledo co-offensive coordinator) Robert Weiner, former Jesuit coach (and current Berkeley defensive coordinator James Harrell), Baltimore Ravens tight ends coach George Godsey and Houston Texans linebackers coach Chris Kiffin.

Now that’s a dual threat

Look for Clearwater Central Catholic junior dynamo Jershaun Newton’s role to expand even more Friday night — from spirals and scrambles to even setting the edge.

Newton, only 81 rushing yards shy of a 1,000-yard passing and rushing season, also will log snaps on the defensive edge against Jacksonville Trinity Christian. The youngest of five brothers to play for the Marauders, Newton was defensive fixture as a freshman before becoming the starting quarterback in 2022.

He enters Friday’s game with 1,764 passing yards, 919 rushing yards, 26 total touchdowns and five tackles.

“If we have 60 snaps on defense, at this time of the year he’s probably (taking) about half,” CCC coach Chris Harvey said. “Now, that only started happening the last two or three weeks. ... You hate to say this as a coach, but it’s not anything we coach. It’s just that he’s a ball guy, and you line up and he goes and gets it.”

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Comeback Cowboys

The Gaither High offensive line remains the unsung unit of a team that has won six in a row, coach Kirk Karsen said. From left to right: Raul Paz-Morales, Matthew Krause, Tyreek Major, Nick Nastal, CJ Dugne-Matos. Kneeling: Carmine Morton.
The Gaither High offensive line remains the unsung unit of a team that has won six in a row, coach Kirk Karsen said. From left to right: Raul Paz-Morales, Matthew Krause, Tyreek Major, Nick Nastal, CJ Dugne-Matos. Kneeling: Carmine Morton. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

Only seven weeks ago, Gaither was 2-5 and struggling to maintain a playoff pulse after a merciless early season slate that included one-point losses to Wharton and Jesuit.

The Cowboys (8-5) have won six in a row since, highlighted by a 16-0 road triumph against Largo and a redemptive 31-24 overtime victory over Jesuit in the playoffs. Teeming with talented underclassmen, including 3,000-yard passer Jayce Nixon and sophomore 1,300-yard rusher Elija Mason, the Cowboys face nationally ranked Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in Friday’s 3M semifinals.

“I feel like they feel like they can take on the Bucs right now and have a chance,” said Gaither coach Kirk Karsen, whose team trailed Jesuit by 14 entering the fourth quarter last week. “That’s just the mindset that they just don’t quit. They think they’re in every game, and they believe, and that’s everything.”

Four players to watch

Gaither High junior defensive tackle Antonio Henley enters Friday night's Class 3M state semifinals with 21 sacks.
Gaither High junior defensive tackle Antonio Henley enters Friday night's Class 3M state semifinals with 21 sacks. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

DT Antonio Henley, Gaither, Jr.: Has totaled 21 sacks, as an interior defensive lineman

OL/DL Nikhil Jefferson, Berkeley Prep, Sr.: Four-year starter has helped pave way for two 1,000-yard rushers

DL Keo Jenkins, CCC, Jr.: Leads Maruauders with 11 sacks

LB Alex Tate, Plant, Jr.: Panthers’ tackles leader (121) had four sacks vs. Sumner last week

By the numbers

Plant receiver Ben Mackinnon hauls in a 45-yard reception last Friday during the Panthers' 20-14 victory against Sumner in a Class 4M region final.
Plant receiver Ben Mackinnon hauls in a 45-yard reception last Friday during the Panthers' 20-14 victory against Sumner in a Class 4M region final. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

3: Gaither offensive linemen to sign with (or make a solid pledge to) USF during Kirk Karsen’s seven-season tenure as coach. Donovan Jennings and Andrew Kilfoyl were Bulls starters this season, and Cowboys senior Tyreek Major is expected to sign with USF in the upcoming early signing period.

4: Plant players with at least four touchdown catches (Tripp Brown, Ben Mackinnon, Waltez Clark, Chase Jarrett)

5: 100-yard rushing games for Gaither sophomore Elija Mason

15: Age of 6-foot-8, 400-pound CCC sophomore right guard Dujuan Davis, whose agility belies his bulk. “If I had him lay down right here and I told him to stand up, he’d get up without putting his hands on the ground,” Marauders coach Chris Harvey said.

23: Length (in yards) of CCC senior kicker Edoardo Cosenza’s winning field goal with seven seconds remaining in the Marauders’ 43-41 victory against Carrollwood Day in last week’s Class 1M, Region 2 final. “It was such a powerful moment,” Cosenza said of the first game-winning kick of his life. “I’ve been waiting for that my whole career.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.