By:  J. Daniel Pearson for Positively Osceola
Photo provided by J. Daniel Pearson

Osceola County had two athletes win a total of three individual state championships in the sport of weightlifting this past weekend; while the post-season in other sports are approaching.  Here is a look around the county:

Weightlifting-Ziss Repeats as State Champ

The FHSAA boys state weightlifting championship was held in Lakeland, Fla. this past weekend and 

St. Cloud’s Mikey Ziss continued to show why he is one of the top lifters in the state, if not the nation.  The junior dynamo dominated the 119-lb. weight class in both the Olympic (Snatch and Clean-and-Jerk) and Traditional (Clean-and-Jerk, Bench Press) formats to repeat as state champion in both disciplines.

In the Olympic, Ziss hit all six of his attempts with compiling a 205 (snatch)-255 (C&J)-460 total to easily win his weight class by 60 pounds over Hagerty’s Jagarii Gardner.  That total earned Ziss the overall “Top Olympic Lifter” award across all weight classes for the state championship.  

It was more of the same in the Traditional as his 255 (C&J)-225 (Bench)-480 Total was 40 pounds heavier than second place finisher Shawn Morgan (225-215-240) of Pace High School.  In the Traditional, Ziss just missed taking home the meet’s “Traditional Top Lifter” award – finishing second to Pace’s Kendall Ballou, who won the 139-lb. weight class with a 530-pound total.  

His two gold medals give Ziss four state championships for his career with one season of eligibility left. “Mikey’s work ethic is unmatched,” coach Cory Aun said.  “His level requires so much more training volume to make the gains he has and that training level has inspired his teammates around him.  He did not miss a single clean-and-jerk attempt all year and that speaks volumes.” Overall, he set six new state records.

In addition to Ziss, Liberty High School also produced a state champion as Kevin Hill won the Class 2A, 169-lb. Olympic Title.  Hill hoisted 260 (snatch) and 320 (C&J) to total 580 pounds and win his weight class by 40 pounds over Lake Wales’ Joshua Canet.   

Hill’s total also earned him FHSAA Class 2A Lifter over the other nine state champions based on body weight to lift total ratio.  He is the first Liberty athlete to win an individual state championship

Although they won state championships and reached the top of the podium, Ziss and Hill were not the only Osceola County lifters to score points in the state meet. 

Jonathan Morales (St. Cloud) came up with a second place finish in the 154-lb. Traditional Meet.  The Rodriguez twins from Harmony also collected medals.  Lifting in the 219-lb. weight class,  Anthony Rodriguez hoisted 675-lbs. in the Olympic and 580 in the Traditional to earn third place bronze medal finishes; while his brother Louis took silver in the Traditional with a 645-lb. effort in the 199-pound weight class.  Louis also placed 9th in the Olympic in his class; while St. Cloud senior Conner Howes reached the podium in the Olympic unlimited weight class with a fourth place finish.  Liberty’s Joshua Fabian finished fifth in the 2A, 238-lb. traditional class.

“I can’t say enough about the brothers and what they have meant to our school and our program,” Harmony coach Nick Lippert said of the Rodriguez brothers.  “They are so dedicated, so competitive and work so hard but everything they do is with total class and respect.”

Harmony Stays Alive in Flag Football

In the sport of flag football, St. Cloud became the first Osceola County team to defeat Harmony in nearly three years with a 19-12 win over the Longhorns in the Class 2A, District 18 championship game on April 12.  The win sent the Lady Bulldogs into regional action, where they were joined by district champions Celebration (2A, District 17), who won a 13-0 decision over Freedom and Gateway, a 19-18 overtime winner over Davenport in the 1A, District 13 Final.  The county would send a total of four teams to the regional championships, as Harmony – the OBC champion—earned an at-large bid to regionals based on their 13-3 record.

The regional round of 32 games where held last week and when the smoked cleared only Harmony –the only non-district winner among Osceola County’s four qualifiers—was left standing in the tournament.  The Longhorns defeated Celebration in its regional opener, 13-0, and will now advance to a regional quarterfinal and face a tough Martin County (16-1) team on the road Tuesday night (4/23).  Martin County has lost just four times in the last three years, compiling a 48-4 record in the process.

In Harmony’s win, quarterback Martha Edwards was 16-for-24 passing for 130 yards with touchdown passes to Kinzie James and Alex Ceballos. Gateway (13-5) saw its season end with a 25-0 loss to Brandon; while St. Cloud (12-4) lost an 18-0 decision to Palm Beach Gardens (14-3) in its regional round of 32 contest.

Blanton New Celebration Football Coach    

Chris Blanton, a former standout football player at Troy State who has coaching experience at several local high schools including Celebration, has been named the Storm’s new head coach.  He replaces Jed Ebersole, who was hired in January but departed a month later among allegations of non-allowable recruiting practices.  Ebersole had been hired to replace Jeremy Palmer, who was let go after a pair of 1-9 seasons (2022-23).

“Given the circumstances of having to make such a late change, we are extremely fortunate to welcome Coach Blanton as our new head football coach,” Athletics Director Chad Boudreaux said.   “He has a ton of coaching experience and has already started to generate a lot of positive energy with our student athletes.”

A native of Atlanta, Blanton excelled at football, track and wrestling at Newton High School.  He began his college career at Mississippi College, where he played running back and running track.  He would transfer to Troy State, where he played defensive back for three seasons and would graduate in 2011. 

Following a season of playing profession football in Europe, Blanton turned to coaching.  He was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Freedom and also served stints as defensive backs coach St. Cloud, Haines City, and Celebration.  He also was head coach and assistant athletics director at Advance Prep Academy in Auburndale, Fla.  

Baseball 7A-District 9 To Be An All-County Affair

For most of the regular season and during the OBC Tournament, Osceola County teams pretty much beat up on each other and that will not change much when District Tournament play begins next week.  Although pairings will not be announced until later, five of the county’s eight public schools find themselves in the same Class 7A, District 9 including Harmony, Osceola, Tohopekaliga, Poinciana and Celebration.  St. Cloud (6A, District 8) will compete against mostly Space Coast teams in its tournament; while Gateway and Liberty (5A, District 7) will be grouped with several Polk County teams.

In preparation for the start of district tournaments, one week remains in the regular season.  

OBC Champion Harmony (14-9) comes into the final week of the season as perhaps the hottest team in the county – winning10 of their last 12 games including back-to-back shutouts of Eau Gallie (7-0) and Melbourne (5-0) last week.  Evan Christ went five innings allowing five hits and striking out eight in the Eau Gallie win; while Ismael Rivera went 4.2 innings, allowing three hits and striking out six in the Melbourne win.  The Longhorns finish the regular season with a couple of tough games, facing Rockledge (21-2) on Monday at home and The First Academy (16-6) on the road Friday.

Osceola (10-10) looks to finish the season with a fourth straight win when the Kowboys travel to Lake Minneola (17-5) on Thursday.  It will be the final regular season game for Osceola senior standout Nick Palmi (.448 batting average, 23 RBI, 10 extra base hits).  Tohopekaliga (12-9) head coach Armando Perez has the Tigers in position to finish with a winning record in his first year at the helm.  The Tigers will play three games this week, including contests at Celebration (4/22) and Gateway (4/25).  With the exception of Harmony, the Tigers own regular season wins against the other six county teams, going 8-3 in those games.

Alejandro Hernandez (.483 batting average, .580 on base percentage) is the top hitter in Celebration’s lineup as the Storm (9-10-1) also look to finish with a .500 or better regular season mark.  St. Cloud (13-8) finishes its regular season this week on the road facing Timber Creek (4/22), Olympia (4/23) and Cypress Creek (4/25).  Freshman Sammy Echeverry continues his torrid pace, smacking his fourth home run on the season in a 13-3, 10-run rule win over Poinciana.  He is currently hitting .404 on the season with a team-leading 18 RBI and 21 hits.

Harmony Looks To Keep Control in Softball

Harmony (9-8) defeated St. Cloud by a 4-2 score in the OBC Championship game on April 12 and then turned around lost to the Bulldogs (12-11) just five days later by a 12-5 score.  Because the teams play in different districts, they can only meet in a rematch in regional play.  To get there, St. Cloud must navigate a Class 7A, District 9 tournament next week that includes Boone, Freedom, Lake Nona and Cypress Creek; while Harmony’s Class 7A, District 10 tournament will have all Osceola schools (Osceola, Celebration, Poinciana, Tohopekaliga, Longhorns) participating.  

Osceola concludes its regular season with a game against Bishop Moore (4/23); St. Cloud, who has played an extremely difficult schedule all season, takes on The First Academy (4/23) before finishing with state power Hagerty (18-4) on Apr. 25; while Harmony has regular season games remaining with Winter Springs (4/25) and Melbourne Christian (4/26). Tohopekaliga (13-5) leads the county in winning percentage, but has lost twice this season to Osceola.

Lacrosse Season Ends for Local Teams

The three public schools that sponsor the sport of lacrosse (Celebration, Tohopekaliga, and St. Cloud) all saw their seasons come to an end in district play last week.  But there were some highlights on the season.    Tohopekaliga boys finished with a winning record (8-7) and won their first district playoff game in the school’s five-year history.  The Lady Tigers (7-7) finished with a .500 record; while the St. Cloud boys (9-9) and girls (10-4) both finished at .500 or above in just their second season of competition; with the Lady Bulldogs also winning a district playoff game against Lake Nona by a 6-4 score.

Track Districts This Week

Local Osceola County athletes will take their first step towards qualifying for the FHSAA State Championships this week as District meets are held across the region.  The boys and girls teams from Harmony, Osceola, and St. Cloud will compete in the 4A, District 10 championships next Friday (4/26) at Viera High School in Melbourne.  Celebration and Poinciana will compete in the 4A, District 5 meet on Thursday (4/25) at George Jenkins High in Lakeland; Gateway and Liberty will be in the 3A, District 8 meet at Lake Region High in Polk County on the same day.  Tohopekaliga is in 4A, District 9 and will run at Dr. Phillips on Wednesday, May 1.

Athletes and relay teams finishing in the top four at districts, automatically for regional competition; while the top eight performances among non-automatic qualifers –regardless of district– can earn an at-large bid to regionals.