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Prep football teams set to kick off
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Packers run offensive drills during practice Aug. 20. Teams all over Pinellas County are getting ready for football season.
For a Pinellas County public school to advance to the semifinals of the state playoffs is a monumental feat.

For a local team to do that in successive seasons is extraordinary.

Call Largo High School extraordinary.

Coach Rick Rodriguez has built one of the state’s powerhouse programs. This year could be a repeat.

“I think with the progress we have made in the last four or five years we are a program where we want to be,” Rodriguez said. “But we want to take that next step. “Our kids expect to be (deep in the playoffs).”

How dominant has Largo been in recent years, if the two trips to the semifinals aren’t evidence enough, the Packers have lost a grand total of four regular season games the past four years including two in the past three years.

Largo did lose a lot of talent and a lot of starters, 16 in all. But always thinking ahead, Rodriguez got his reserves plenty of playing time. In the past three years, his junior varsity program has posted three consecutive 6-1 seasons.

Though Rodriguez lost a lot of starters, he has a lot of beef returning.

The Packers, known for their strong ground game and punishing defense have another solid team. It has three linebackers that could be one of the best units in the state. Rodriguez also has five returning starters on the offensive line.

Largo also has one of the best secondaries highlighted by Jamarious Boatwright and Jason Wine.

The linebackers include Sean Holte who was a first-team all-state linebacker who led the Packers with 102 tackles, Daniel Tillman who had 55 tackles and three fumble recoveries and Jamaal Smith who transferred from Cape Coral.

“Our biggest question mark is who will be our tailback,” Rodriguez said. “But we’ll find one.” Scatback B.J. Key may be a key for the Packers.

“Our kids know we have a big target,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone wants to knock us out. It’s part of our mystique.”

Largo opens its season at home Sept. 3 against Dunedin. Other area teams begin Sept. 4.

Following is a look at other area teams:

COUNTRYSIDE: If Largo is the leader of the Pack(ers), Countryside is the second runner-up. Though the Cougars have been a power since John Davis took over the program, they aren’t quite to the level of Largo. Close though.

This year Countryside may have its best team in years led by three-year starter quarterback Jimbo Chmelik who returns with 26 touchdowns and 2,200 passing yards behind a strong offensive line which could mean the scoreboard at Cougars games could short out.

Names to watch: Terry Johnson, linebacker; Max Wolfinbarger, defensive lineman; Tyree Craddock, defensive lineman; William Griswold, kicker; Mitch Ronacher, defensive back; Alex Dixon, defensive back.

CLEARWATER: The Tornadoes have to bounce back from an ugly 2008 season where they won just two games. Clearwater appears thin but that means a lot of players have an opportunity to shine.

Jeremiah George is clearly the squad’s best player, ranked as one of the best outside linebackers in the country.

CLEARWATER CENTRAL CATHOLIC: Last year was a rare year for the Marauders. Usually a private school power which produces quite a bit of talent including Florida wide receiver (and roommate of Tim Tebow) Riley Cooper and Miami linebacker Colin McCarthy, Clearwater Central Catholic didn’t make the playoffs posting a 5-5 record.

It was the first time in 13 years CCC missed the playoffs.

It’s not like CCC has a dearth of talent this season. The Marauders will have a very deep offensive and defensive line led by Alec Petrocelli. Also, Nick Newton is a can-do-anything type of player who can excel at multiple positions.

Eric Miller is a bruising quarterback who can run as well as throw.

Player to watch: Wide receiver/defensive back Daniel Higinbotham.

DUNEDIN: Another perennial Pinellas County strong team, the Falcons in the past have relied on a strong running game and a punishing defense. They might have the defense back but this year they have a quarterback.

Ryan Singer may be the best quarterback in the county and certainly the best Falcons quarterback since the multi-threat Theo Wilson. Singer is strictly a pocket passer, though very good.

The Falcons will have to find a way to replace 28 seniors from last year including stud running back Adaris Bellamy. Speedster Jezreel Saunders is the likely replacement.

Linebacker Ali Cheaib should lead the defense.

Names to watch: Receivers Kenny Robillard, Nathan Diehl and Allen Battle.

PINELLAS PARK: Kenny Crawford has been one of the most successful assistant coaches in the area more recently the defensive coordinator the past two seasons at Northeast.

This year he takes over a Pinellas Park program that, if he succeeds, will be nothing short of a hero.

The Patriots have won a grand total of five games the past five years including an 0-10 mark last season. Pinellas Park is scraping the spread option offense, going to a run-oriented Wing-T.

Players to watch: Oraian Bentley, running back; Tra Butler, defensive line.

OSCEOLA: The Warriors are also hoping to bounce back from a valley. After years of solid football, Osceola has won two games total the past two seasons. Coach George Palmer enters his 20th season.

Names to watch: Jace Browne, running back; Edwin McKinney, running back.

SEMINOLE: The Warhawks were once the shining light of Pinellas County football, evidence by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson of the Cleveland Browns, who is one of the top young players in the NFL.

After a couple of very lean years, Sam Roper seems to be slowly getting back on track. The last four games of the year will test the Warhawks as they play Gibbs, Largo, St. Petersburg and Countryside.

Seminole lost all starters on the offensive and defensive lines.

Players to watch: Collin Bailey, running back; Austin Cowan quarterback.
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