Last year was a banner season for high school football in Wesley Chapel. Wiregrass Ranch High went 7-3 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, while Wesley Chapel High went 7-2 and just barely missed the postseason. There’s a new kid on the block this year, Cypress Creek Middle High, so expect things to get even more interesting in local “Friday Night Lights.” | STORY and PHOTOS By Andy Warrener and John C. Cotey
WESLEY CHAPEL HIGH (7-2 last year, 5-2 in Class 5A, District 8)
If you had to rank the three teams in Wesley Chapel to start the season, the Wildcats would have to be No. 1. They have lots of experience, and while they will likely feel the effects of losing players to Cypress Creek in the coming years, it won’t be this season.
WCH is locked and loaded. The Wildcats lost their two biggest games last season, key district meetings against Zephyrhills and River Ridge in back-to-back weeks, but still won seven games in 2017, or, one more game than they had in four previous seasons….combined!
Head coach Tony Egan enters his second season at WCH with some holes to fill on the offensive and defensive lines, but has some prime talent at key positions.
Oregon and Florida State recruit Isaiah Bolden, a top DB prospect, will also play QB this year. Bolden’s ability to run makes a rushing attack that accumulated more than 2,200 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground even more dangerous.
But he can throw a little too, and completed all of his spring passes to WR Justin Trapnell, including a 58-yard touchdown.
RB Dexter Leverett, a 1,249-yard rusher last season, could repeat or improve upon his 2016 numbers, though he may not have to, with Bolden and backfield mate Malik Melvin, who also has 1,000-yard potential.
Junior OL Seth Petty, senior LB Austen Wittish and Melvin, who also plays DB, were all All-Sunshine Athletic Conference performers last year.
The icing on the cake, however, could be DE Chaz Neal, a transfer from Armwood, arguably the best high school team in all of Tampa Bay. A 6-foot-9, 270-lb. FSU recruit, Neal will force teams to gameplan around him.
River Ridge and Zephyrhills will again be the teams to beat in Class 5A, District 8, but they have to travel to Wesley Chapel this year; in other words, we wouldn’t be surprised if the Wildcats beat them both of them!
WIREGRASS RANCH HIGH (7-3 last year, 5-1 in 7A-8)
In the spring, WRH looked like a team well on its way to repeating, if not exceeding, last year’s breakout season. But, the transfer bug took a big bite out of the team during the summer.
The Bulls saw a trio of key players depart — Shamaur McDowell, a DB that has orally committed to the University of Minnesota, transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton; last year’s leading rusher, Da Da McGee (1,063 yards, 11 TDs), transferred to Hillsborough High; QB/S Raymond Woodie III, who has 20+ Division I offers, moved to Oregon with his father, who is the Ducks linebackers coach.
Between the three players, that’s a ton of multi-position talent to lose. But, head coach Mark Kantor thinks he has the pieces to fill in the puzzle for the Bulls.
Senior RB Kwesi Littlejohn will take over for McGee, after carrying the ball five times for 100 yards in limited action last year. Paxon High (in Jacksonville) transfer Mason Buie also will get some touches.
FB/LB Chase Oliver, a 5-9 210-lb. wrecking ball, ran for 82 yards in the spring game and broke off some big runs, but is also effective as a third down/short yardage option. And, production at LB can help make up for the loss of McDowell.
Senior WR/DBs Dorien Green, Jacob Hill and Adrian Thomas are expected to rotate in at safety in Woodie’s absence.
Junior Grant Sessums inherits the starting QB job, and he’ll have tall, skilled targets to throw to, like 6-1 Penn State recruit Jordan Miner (featured in our last issue) and 6-3 Daniel Biglow, both seniors. Miner is one of the most explosive players in the Tampa Bay area, and his big-play ability is a huge plus.
CYPRESS CREEK HIGH (First season)
There’s little doubt that you are going to take your lumps in your first year of varsity high school football. The seven most recent public schools to open in Pasco County went a combined 4-61, and WRH and WCH both started out with 1-9 records.
That said, the Coyotes need to focus on one game at a time, says coach Mike Thompson.
“Start small,” Thompson says. “In game one, let’s get one first down,’’ he says. “Then, let’s get one touchdown. Then, let’s win a half — baby steps. It’s important to show we’re progressing.”
Thompson is excited about sophomore QB Jehlani Warren, who the coach says has been “soaking up the playbook.” He will have some solid targets to throw to between Tim Ford-Brown, Devin Santana and Trevor Maxwell.
Though the team will have no seniors, guys like Santana and RB Keith Walker have varsity experience. Santana played four games for Wesley Chapel last year as a sophomore and had 158 yards receiving and a touchdown, and Walker, a budding star, ran for 136 yards and two scores as a freshman.
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN WC
Nkem “Kim” Asomba (WRH Sr.) DL/OL: The 6-5, 265-pound Asomba is new to the sport and still raw but if he develops quickly, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the football. Asomba was very disruptive in the spring game against Tampa Catholic.
Isaiah Bolden (WCH Sr.) QB/WR/CB/KR/PR: Bolden will be everywhere this year. Teams will not be able to gameplan around him anymore since the ball will be in his hands every play.
Jordan Miner (WRH Sr.) WR/CB/QB: Miner will get some reps in at Wildcat quarterback, as well as line up on the outside on both offense and defense. The Bulls will look to tap Miner’s skill set and versatility, and he is their most dangerous player.
Keith Walker (CCH So.) TB/WR: Walker comes over from Wesley Chapel after having a breakout game in the spring for the Wildcats.
Leverette (WCH Sr.) RB/S: Leverette was the featured guy in the offense last season. With Bolden under center and Malik Melvin lining up alongside him, it will be hard for defenses to key in on Leverette in 2017.
Chase Oliver (WRH Sr.) LB/RB: Oliver is a bulldozer of a player, and a menace to both ball carriers and would-be tacklers. Oliver joined the 1,500 Club in 2017 (combined bench press, power clean, squat and dead lift weights).
Chaz Neal (Sr.) DE/RT: You won’t miss him, as he stands 6’-9” and towers over teammates. He might be the best player in the county that no one has seen. He’s a huge (pun intended) X-factor for the Wildcats and his impact on the field will be immediately felt.
Jehlani Warren (CCH So.) QB: As Warren’s fortunes go, so go the fortunes of the Coyotes. If Warren and the offense can find rhythm early in the season and adjust to game speed, the Coyotes could have a productive season.
Austen Wittish (WCH Sr.) LB/FB: Wittish is the centerpiece of the Wildcats’ defense. He led the team with 94 tackles a year ago and will also contribute at FB.
Kwesi Littlejohn (WRH Sr.) RB/S: Littlejohn will be the guy most asked to step into the void left by McGee. If Littlejohn can bring some consistency to the position, the Bulls will be in great shape.
GAMES TO WATCH
Tonight: Gulf at Cypress Creek
Welcome to high school football, Coyotes. Oh, and mmmmm, gotta love that brand new stadium smell. The Coyotes are young and ready to go, and they couldn’t have found a better opponent for a first-ever game in Gulf. The Bucs typically are one of Pasco County’s smaller teams up front, although they often have a few great athletes, but they are also riding a 21-game losing streak. Dare we say it?
Sept. 1: Wiregrass Ranch at Wesley Chapel
It’s a shame the big rivalry game got cancelled due to inclement weather a year ago, with both teams in the midst of their most successful seasons in years. The wait should add a little charge to this year’s showdown. There will be a Fox 13 pep rally that morning and Spectrum Sports will televise the game.
Oct. 20: Zephyrhills at Wesley Chapel Some key injuries early in the game and miscues on special teams opened the door for the Bulldogs to steal a game that Egan felt his squad had under control.
Oct. 27: River Ridge at Wesley Chapel
A banged up Chapel team hung with the eventual district champion for most of the game last year. This year, the Wildcats host Egan’s former team, and a district title could be on the line.
Oct. 27: Plant at Wiregrass Ranch
It’s always worth a trip to check out the four-time state champion Panthers, who are once again loaded. This game should be ripe with playoff implications.
Here’s how PascoCountyFB.com has the teams ranked for 2017 in its Super 7.
1. Wiregrass Ranch
2. Wesley Chapel
3. River Ridge
7. Zephyrhills Christian