By: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola
Spring football practice is a valuable time for high school football coaches as it gives them time to plug in younger players into holes created by graduating seniors prior to the start of pre-season workouts in August.
Those practices started for most teams on Monday, where coaches will have 20 sessions (counting a spring game) to begin molding their squad for the 2023 season that begins in August. For some it will be a total rebuild, for others it is a chance to integrate a few new players in the starting line-up, and for one program in county, it is really just a business as usual reloading process.
That team reloading is perennial state power Osceola.
The Kowboys lose 15 key seniors off of last fall’s state semifinal team including five players in Derrick Leblanc (Oklahoma), John Walker (UCF), Ja’Keem Jackson (Florida), Bo Mascoe (Rutgers) and Jamarion McCrimon (East Carolina); all of which earned D-1 scholarships.
Despite the drain of that talent – as well as 10 other regular contributors – you would still be hard pressed to find any opponents feeling sorry for Osceola. As has been the case for the last two-decades plus, the Kowboys will simply replace the few remaining starters with an extremely talented group of youngsters that have been waiting their turn in the wings.
With the exception of McCrimon, the Kowboys do return their entire starting offensive line includes stalwarts Thomas Garrity and Cameren Delke. A year bigger, a year stronger, and a year more experienced, that line should have little trouble opening up holes for Taevion Swint.
One of the best running backs in the country, Swint – a recent UCF commit – is just a record-setting junior who has already piled up nearly 4000 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Part-time starter Gunner Holland returns at quarterback and the Osceola offense will feature two speedsters in Notorious Reynolds and Alijah Jenkins on the outside.
Defensively, the Kowboys return OLB Jalen Bell, LB Robert Lee, LB Elijah Melendez and defensive back Jeff Banks – along with a whole crop of promising young players – and it is probably a safe prediction that Osceola will be tops in their district once again.
“We are fortunate in that we have always had a great feeder program,” Osceola Coach Eric Pinellas said. “We had some freshmen last year that were certainly good enough to start at other programs and now it is their turn to step in. Between the returning veterans and the new players coming up, we feel good about our roster.”
While the Kowboys reload, Harmony (6-5, FHSAA Playoffs in 2023) may be looking at more of a total rebuild. Interim head coach Nick Lippert replaces Don Simon, who stepped down last month after 28 years as a high school football coach – including the last seven with the Longhorns.
The Longhorns were a senior dominated team last year and graduated 90% of their offense including running backs Tyler Emans and Cooper Richards and quarterback Ayden Parks. In addition, Harmony loses eight full or part-time starters on its defense, leaving Lippert essentially to start over.
He will begin that rebuild on defense with junior linebacker, leading tackler and D-1 prospect Dalten Phelan; as well as defensive tackle Clayton Williams and defensive backs Chase Adams and Alex Nash. There is no question Phelan will be the leader of the defense given his production. Offensively, Lippert says the quarterback position will be a wide open competition as they attempt to find the heir apparent to Parks. Jeremy Hilliard will be the featured running back but several others will compete for carries.
“Our defense will look mainly the same in terms of scheme,” Lippert said. “I don’t think you can lose guys like Tyler and Cooper and says nothing will change – they were too talented to say that. We’re Harmony and we’ll run the ball but I think we will be looking to spread the ball around a little more this season.”
Although they had several key seniors graduate, St. Cloud (7-3) posted a solid season last year while playing a lot of underclassmen. Coach Mike Short says “We were a young team last year, so we don’t have a ton of holes to fill heading into August,” Short said. “We have a lot of talented freshmen and sophomores from last year and developing them for the future will be an important part of our spring drills.”
St. Cloud is led by junior quarterback and two-year starter Logan King, who threw for almost 2000 yards last season with 18 touchdown passes. Leading rusher TJ Griffin (496 yards) returns, as does leading receiver Owen Conner (43 receptions-865 yards-6 touchdowns). The offensive line is anchored by Conner Howse. The hulking 6-6, 310-lb. junior progressed to the point where he most likely will start garnering Division-1 attention from scouts this year. On defense, the Bulldogs return several outstanding athletes including Landon Millman (37 tackles, 6 TFL, 5 QS), and the safety tandem of Tyler Green and Bryce Williams
Taking over program in total disarray, first year Coach Anthony Paradiso turned Tohopekaliga into a winning program in his first year as the Tigers went 6-4.
Highlights included a record setting freshman at quarterback in a freshman– Sabby Meassick—who threw for more than 3000 yards and 38 touchdown passes in his first season. “We tossed a young kid into the fire and he made the freshman mistakes we expected him to make,” Paradiso said about Meassick. “But Sabby is a tremendously talented, athletic kid with a high football IQ. He has three years left and is only going to get bigger and better.”
Meassick will have some returning offensive talent around him, including Leading receiver Julian Nasco (873 yards -12 touchdowns) returns as will dual-purpose running back Churandy Duval (741 rushing yards, 550 receiving yards, 10 total touchdowns).
But even with the first year success, Paradiso said there was still a lot of work to do at Tohopekaliga. “We need to get bigger and stronger, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, “ he said in calling last year a “work in progress.” Paradiso added that his athletes put “a lot of work in the weight room and in conditioning drills” this past off-season as they continue to work to get better.
Celebration had to face a tough schedule with a brand new offensive line. Those young players took their lumps during a 1-9 season, but should be the strength of the team this season. The Storm returns some veterans in Gavin Konopka (OL/DL), Ashton Braswell (S/RB/Slot) and Lucas Morton Carlson (RB/DB) but once again will be an extremely young team.
“We lost 22 seniors off of last year’s team, including most of our playmakers,” Palmer said. “With only five seniors on this year’s team we’re going to be extremely young again. Spring practices are going to be extremely important for getting our young players to understand the intensity of varsity football.”
Looking to become more competitive after years of frustration, Poinciana elected to go the independent route last year. The strategy paid off as the Eagles won a school record eight games (8-2), recorded just their second winning season ever, and defeated arch-rival Liberty for the first time ever.
“We tried to schedule with using a third-third-third strategy. We wanted a third of our games where we felt we would have the better team and a good chance to win, we wanted a third of our opponents with the same talent as ours and a third of our schedule where we would have to play really well to win and I thought it worked out that way last year,” Coach Randy Beeken said. “We’ll play mostly the same schedule this year and then evaluate whether we want to go back into a district.”
Although the Eagles lose a ton of senior talent, including record-setting quarterback De’Kwan Bradly, WR/RB Perry Garrett and WR Donald Cummings, solid talent remains including WR Ernest Nunn, RB Wil Nezius and edge rushers Jason Batista and Taurence Boland. Ahkeem Knox, a talented running back from Osceola, has announced his transfer to the Eagles. “Figuring out the quarterback situation is going to be a big key to the spring, but other than that we feel good about what our squad will look like in August,” Beeken said.
A combination of losing half their student population that was syphoned off when Tohopekaliga opened five years ago and an incredible run of bad luck have resulted in some lean years for Gateway and head coach Marlin Roberts.
Few programs have been bit by injuries as Gateway has, as the Panthers have lost many of their best players for extended periods of time in each of the last five years. On top of things, the reduction of student population put Gateway in the same district (3S, D8) with Polk County small school powers Auburndale, Lake Wales and Lake Region.
Still Gateway has some talented athletes returning, including Chris Charity, Aiden Morillo and Josh Fuller but depth will be an issue again. If the Panthers can stay healthy, they have a chance to improve on their two-win total from a year ago.
After a disastrous 0-10 season, where they were outscored 453-12, Liberty turns over its football program to first-time head coach Dee Hart. A former standout at Alabama and Colorado State, Hart, 30, was formerly the head junior varsity coach at Frostproof. The former record-setting running back at Dr. Phillips has a huge rebuilding job in front of him – a challenge he says he will tackle head on. “We definitely have a lot of work to do,” Hart said. “I’ve always wanted to be that person who can offer the younger generation a chance to take a different path and look forward to this opportunity.”
Hart will most likely try to build the program around Liberty best returning athlete, quarterback
Spring Football Game Schedule
- 5/10 Tohopekaliga at Hagerty 7 p.m.
- 5/17 Osceola at Edgewater 7 p.m.
- 5/18 George Jenkins at Celebration 7 p.m.
- 5/19 Poinciana at Gateway 7 p.m.
- 5/19 St. Cloud at Freedom 7 p.m.
- 5/23 Harmony at Mt. Dora 7 p.m.
- 5/25WH Ambassadors vs. Discovery vs. Liberty4:30 p.m.*
- *Jamboree Style Game ½ Half Against Each Opponent