The Great Divide: South Pinellas teams with more questions than answers

The division of north and south has existed in many aspects of our lives both sporting and socially for well over a century. We’ve fought domestic and foreign wars over its designated territory; we’ve divided our all-star games and conference divisions over them.  Hillsborough County has east and west, northwest and when describing the neighborhood loyalties in the rivalry between Robinson and Plant as everything either north or south of Gandy and Pinellas County is no exception.

The last 12 seasons collectively have not been kind to any school south of Gandy (or in this case as you cross US-19 headed west it becomes Park Blvd.) which would include Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Lakewood, Northeast, Osceola, Seminole and St. Petersburg. Although Osceola and Seminole are technically north of this imaginary boundary, they are generally included when describing the south since they are literally feet north of the divide .

With the exception of Osceola (which was established in 1981), every single public program south of this imaginary divide is 40 years or older.  St. Petersburg graduated their first students in 1901, yet experienced their best 3-year stretch in school history from 2008-2010.  They just celebrated their first back-to-back 10 win seasons in 2009 and 2010. They’re 42-24 (43-23 if you count the forfeit win vs. Gibbs in which they lost 12-7 this season) since 2006 under Coach Fabrizio.

Northeast High School is the only team at .500 since 2000. Yes, that Northeast.  Every other school is a minimum 2 games under (Lakewood) with the eight teams combined for a 455-544 record (45%).  Their northern neighbors (Clearwater, Countryside, Dunedin, East Lake, Largo, Pinellas Park, Palm Harbor University and Tarpon Springs) are slightly *cough* better over the same time with a record of 536-483 coming in at 53%.

Those numbers may not tell the whole story, but they certainly raise some questions.  Yeah, there’s Largo (105-36) and Countryside (98-38) who are combined 203-74 since the turn of the Century skewing the numbers, yet when your top 3 programs from a W/L standpoint include Northeast (#1) and Seminole (#3), you may have issues.  No slight against those programs whatsoever, but I’m just saying given the recent trends in their yearly performances.

As you might expect, Osceola (48-75) and Dixie Hollins (51-72) are bringing up the rear and don’t exactly show signs of growing into powerhouses anytime in the future, yet the bottom two programs in the north that are a combined 82 games under .500 since 2000 (Palm Harbor University is 42-72 and Pinellas Park is 34-86) are shooting up the ladder pretty quickly now that they’ve seemingly found their guys to right the ships.

Lakewood and St. Petersburg are doing their best to get their situations turned around with HC’s Joe Fabrizio at St. Pete and Corey Moore at Lakewood establishing stability, while it’s common knowledge to those in “The Pie” that some of the best talent in the entire county is walking the neighborhoods (and hallways) of Boca Ciega and Gibbs.

I asked Fabrizio (Coach Fab as he’s affectionately known) what might be the underlying issues behind this.  Fabrizio has worked in the system for 27 years and was at Seminole in the early 2000’s when the Warhawks were a 10-win team (although not on staff). He’s at a school which offers the same academic preparation and programs as a private school and many of the “top-tier” schools in Hillsborough County. He’s also bordered by some of the most talent-laden streets in Florida.  Thus the disconnection begins.

“That’s a great question. It’s something I brought up while at a coaches meeting recently. All of us South County guys are sitting around and I said ‘It’s an embarrassment that none of us St. Pete schools made it out of the playoffs this year.” says Fabrizio. He’s adamant that the perception isn’t meeting the reality although the numbers tell a much different story.   “It should be unheard of with the talent base we have in south county.”

His Green Devils Program has been the very definition of a rollercoaster throughout the 2000’s hitting the 29-6 mark from ’08-’10 after starting with a 9-32 record from ‘00-’03.  As mentioned earlier, the school itself is 112 years-old and just achieved their best stretch 3 of the last 4 seasons.  He thinks winning a city title should pretty much guarantee you’re going to the playoffs and should give any program a ton of momentum.   It didn’t happen this year, but he gives credit to where credit is due.

“ (I’ve) always felt that playing for that mythical city title in St. Pete meant a lot. Year-in and year-out, if you’re Champions of St. Petersburg you’ve had a pretty good year, it’s difficult for me to point to one thing; there’s just as much talent out there as there ever has been. It’s not that we’ve gotten any worse maybe it’s just that North County has gotten that much better.”

We can talk academics and discipline; we can talk a ton of things, but the common theme I’m hearing from coaches to a man is that it all comes down to one principle; it’s about the staff consistency, commitment and presence.

“Prior to Corey (Moore) getting to Lakewood and myself at Saint Pete there had been a lot of turnover. A lot of times you couldn’t people to even help in the least.  I’ve been really lucky with my principal to have eight guys that are on my staff also on campus. That way you can recruit your own hallways, keep your kids out of trouble; keep their grades up and so on.”

Interesting that Fabrizio raised this point because it’s also one of the predominant if not main issues affecting Hillsborough County as well.  Of course it’s difficult to teach for a minimal salary, then coach for an even more minimal salary (basically paying to coach under the current compensation system with hours worked) along with carrying out the responsibilities and burdens of being an effective classroom instructor.  Coach Fab wasted no time in giving his answer regarding the importance of having the leaders of the program visible throughout the day.

“In my humble opinion, I think it’s absolutely huge. I just don’t think you can handle a football program of 130-150 kids while trying to perform all of the other functions of being a teacher and a Head Coach by yourself. There are a million things throughout the day going on. It’s impossible with just one person.”

If the south is to turn things around, it’s going to have to have more than just two programs make the change.  Seven of the eight teams listed from north (with the exception of East Lake who did not play anyone south of Ulmerton Rd.) had winning records versus the southern programs. Their combined record was 25-3 while none of the southern teams had winning records against their northerly opponents going 4-16. Lakewood was the only team that didn’t play a team from the north.  Fabrizio isn’t shying away though that Pinellas’ accolades will be recognized on a much broader scale at some point no matter the geographical location in the county.

“It’s going to happen. I just don’t know when or who, but there’s not going to be zero state champs from Pinellas County forever.”

If they played each other according to their history since 2000, here’s what it would look like:

Largo (105-36) vs. Northeast (63-63)

Countryside (98-38) vs. Lakewood (63-65)

Tarpon Springs (76-53) vs. Seminole (59-64)

East Lake (69-62) vs. St. Petersburg (59-68)

Dunedin (62-63) vs. Gibbs (57-68)

Clearwater (50-73) vs. Boca Ciega (55-69)

Palm Harbor University (42-72) vs. Dixie Hollins (51-72)

Pinellas Park (34-86) vs. Osceola (48-75)