By:  J. Daniel Pearson

Several schools from Osceola County participated in the Florida Citrus Sports High School Media Day on Monday as an unofficial kickoff to the 2023 season.   Player and coaching contingents from Osceola, St. Cloud, Poinciana, Celebration, Tohopekaliga and Harmony participated in the event.

Practices can begin on Monday, July 31.  Teams may play in a non-counting Kickoff Classic exhibition game the weekend of Aug. 18 and the 10-game regular season begins the weekend of Aug. 25.  St. Cloud High will get a jump on other county school when they will have a “Midnight Madness” season-opening practice a few minutes after 12 a.m. on Monday morning.

“We did it last year and the players had a lot of fun,” Head Coach Mike Short said. “It’s just a different way to start pre-season camp.”

Short told reporters he was “quietly optimistic” after his team won seven games last season and returns a solid contingent of players including junior quarterback Logan King, athlete TJ Griffin, WR Owen Conner, and OT Conner Howes.  King is a two-year starter who threw for 1900 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore and Conner is a junior tackle who already has had numerous D-1 offers.

“We lost some good football players to graduation, but we have been a really young team the last couple of years and those guys are maturing,” Short said.  “We have some depth now and we have some guys that are ready to step up and become starters.”

Long-time Harmony assistant Nick Lippert takes over the Longhorn program from veteran coach Don Simon, who resigned last spring to move into the Athletic Director’s role at Tohopekaliga.  Under Simon, Harmony won six games last year and earned an at-large playoff bid.  

Lippert loses his entire offensive backfield and several key defensive starters to graduation and also saw top tackler Dalton Phelan transfer, but he remains optimistic with the players he has returning. “Jeremy Hilliard is a talented back who has waited his turn behind Tyler Emans and Cooper Richards for two seasons.  I have a lot of confidence that he can have a big year for us.”

Defensively, Lippert returns three talented defenders in defensive backs Alex Nash (Central Michigan commit) and Chase Adams, as well as defensive tackle Clayton Williams. 

Osceola High Coach Eric Pinellas lost a huge list of senior starters – including five who inked D-1 scholarships – but it’s doubtful any area coaches are shedding tears for the Kowboys — who went 10-4 last season and made it to the Class 7A State Championship semifinals. 

The big question for the Kowboys will be at quarterback as a pair of transfers –Anthony Powers (Live Oak) and Cameron West (Tohopekaliga) — will battle in camp to replace last year’s starters David Buggs (graduation) and Gunner Holland (left team to concentrate senior season on wrestling).

The Kowboys tend to reload, not rebuild.  Star running back Taevion Swint (UCF commit), WR Notorious Reynolds, LB Elijah Morales, SS Jalen Bell, CB Ja’Mario Bradford, S Jeff Banks, and RB Jeff Sinophat are just a few of the outstanding players Pinellas will have at his disposal as they seek another deep run into the post-season.

Tohopekaliga’s Anthony Paradiso turned around that program quickly, posting six wins in his first season after taking over a team that went 2-8 the year before.   

Several talented senior transfers aided in the turnaround and they have now graduated, but Toho has a lot of firepower returning – including sophomore quarterback Sabby Meassick, who passed for 3081 yards and 38 touchdowns as a freshman.  Julian Nasco is a top returning receiver and Churandy Duval is a threat as both a runner and receiver.  

Paradiso believes the greatest improvement in 2023 will come from the offensive and defensive lines after those athletes have spending the last year in a strength and conditioning program.  “We simply were not very strong last year and could not compete against teams like Osceola.  We have made a lot of progress in the weight room and need to continue to improve in that area.”

Independent Poinciana had only is second winning season in school history last year, going 8-2 under Randy Beeken.   The Eagles hope to build off of that record and may have the firepower to do so.  Ernest Nunn, Elijah Bowser and Akeem Knox all have big-play capabilities for the Eagles.

Beeken says Poinciana’s independent status gave them the flexibility to schedule all 10 opponents.  “We looked at it and tried to schedule a third of our opponents we thought we should beat, a third that we knew we would be pretty even with and a third that we would have to play well to beat and I think it played out that way.   After decades of struggling, we are trying to build a program and being an independent for now was the best way to try and accomplish that.”

When Celebration opens camp, Coach Jeremy Palmer will have just a handful of returning players on both sides of the ball from a team that went 1-9.  Palmer will have an incredibly young team with 27 freshmen and sophomores on his roster.   With few winning seasons in school history, Palmer said he is working hard to change that history.  “The few times we had a good record, the head coach would leave for another opportunity usually the very next year.  You can’t build any consistency that way.  I’m planning on being here for the long haul and build that consistency that we have been missing.”

Led by junior center Gavin Konopka, the Storm offensive line should be the strength of the team; while sophomore Landen Yaw has the inside track at becoming Celebration’s starting quarterback.

First-year coach Dee Hart has a tremendous rebuilding job in front of him, as taking over a Charger team that went 0-10 and was out-scored 453-12 last year.  The former Alabama/Colorado standout may be the right person for the job, as Liberty traditionally had a solid core of athletes.

Hart will attempt to build his program around quarterback Jeremiah Pierre-Louis and running back JJ Vaughan on offense and brothers Xae’dyn and Xae’vez Brown on defense.  He also has nearly 40 new players on his roster.

Veteran coach Marlin Roberts expects to welcome 42-50 players when camp opens on Monday.  Perhaps no program in the county has been ravaged by injuries like the Panthers, who went through four starting quarterbacks a year ago.  

Depth and health will be a huge key for the Panthers, who have some talented players on the roster like OL/DL Chris Charity, RB/CB Delvin Pryor and athlete Josh Fuller, but Gateway must stay healthy and  develop some depth as they try to improve on last year’s two-win season.