PREP PULSE

Bell looks to finally reach state playoffs in football


Running back Austin Ritchey and the Bell Bulldogs look to reach the state playoffs for the first time in school history this fall.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer/file
Published: Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 12:34 a.m.

With the start of football practices still more than a month away (Aug. 5), most if not all teams are staying busy in the weight room or playing a little 7-on-7 football, preparing for the season ahead.

Each team has the same goal, reaching the state playoffs. To do that, either win your district or finish runner-up.

For 22 of the 24 area schools, making the playoffs has been achieved at some point in their history. Some more than others, some further than others and a few came back with a state title or titles to show for it.

But for two area schools — St. Francis and Bell — reaching their first playoff is still out there. For St. Francis, under new coach David LaMarre, it has only played football since 2007 and as an independent the next two years, will not be eligible for the state playoffs.

Bell, however, has been playing football a lot longer. Although the Bulldogs had some success in 2007-2008, when they went a combined 19-3, they were independent back then and as such were ineligible for the playoffs.

A year ago, Bell went 5-4 and finished third in District 6-1A, where Trenton dominated and reached its first state final. Under first-year coach Joey Whittington, the Bulldogs look to finally end the dry spell and earn their first playoff berth.

“The kids know about it,” said Whittington, who had been a Dixie County assistant for six years under longtime coach Brent Wilkerson. “We reminded them of that and try to get them motivated. The coaches are hungry too.

“I do think we have a shot. We have a good crew of returning players.”

Among those returning is senior running back Austin Ritchey, a first-team all-area player in 2012 who ran for 1,230 yards and 17 touchdowns. As a sophomore, Ritchey ran for 1,036 yards and 10 TDs.

“He is a tough-nosed runner who has a good frame at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds,” Whittington said. “He hits the hole hard and was a pretty good carrier before I got here.”

For a program looking to turn the corner in football, conditioning and weight training in the summer is crucial. Ask any team playing for a state title at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando in November how important its summer routine was in getting there.

“Summer workouts are very important,” Whittington said. “It is a time when our linemen can get stronger. We are a team that normally doesn't pass much, so we want to work on that to complement our running attack.”

Bell's first district game is Sept. 20 at Trenton, then it hosts Bronson (Oct. 4), Hilliard (Oct. 25) and travels to Hawthorne (Nov. 1) in the final league game. A year ago, a 29-14 loss at Hilliard kept the Bulldogs out of the playoffs.

“We have a lot of skilled players back, but we are pretty young on the offensive line,” Whittington said. “Getting them caught up will be the key.”

Bell's season-opening game at home against Tampa Cambridge Christian on Aug. 30 will be broadcast online on the FHSAA Network, as part of Play On Sports. The broadcast will be produced by Cambridge Christian. Yes, it is months away, but the link to the broadcast is: https://www.playonsports.com/channels/florida/events/61932

WARNER BOUND: Hawthorne grad Kevin Lynum has recently been named assistant women's basketball coach at Warner University in Lake Wales. He joins the staff of new coach LaDreda Akins, who was hired in May. Akins coached at Haines City High for 13 years and led the Hornets to the Class 7A state final in 2012, beating Buchholz in the state semifinals.

Lynum, who just completed serving eight years in the Army, has helped many area athletes gain scholarships in different sports. He also started up Florida Sun's Athletics, which is devoted to helping athletes in attaining collegiate playing opportunities in all sports.

“I was at a basketball tournament with Florida Sun's and she (Akins) told me she was looking for an assistant coach,” Lynum recalled. “Three weeks later, she offered me the job. She said she had hundreds of applications but was looking for the best people to come in and help her rebuild the program. It humbled me.”

Last season, the Royals were just 7-21. But as successful as Akins has been on the high school level (313-99), and as motivated as Lynum is as her assistant and recruiting coordinator, Warner could be a team to look out for in NAIA women's basketball.

Lynum says he will continue to run Florida Sun's Athletics and work to find college scholarships for area athletes.

“We are expanding,” he said. “I'm working in Alachua, Gilchrist, Duval counties. I'm pushing for all sports. I'm trying to give them a better future through sports.”

SOUTH FLORIDA POWER: Of the five Florida schools ranked among MaxPrep's preseason top 25 in football, four are from South Florida, and all five are defending state champions. The five are: No. 24 Fort Lauderdale University School (Class 3A champs), 17. Apopka (8A champs), 16. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (7A champs), 9. Miami Washington (4A champs) and 2. Miami Central (6A champs).

Central, which beat Gainesville for the 6A state title in 2012, will play both Washington and University this season as well as national power Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey.

OAK RIDGE BENEFITS: Count me as suspicious of news that two of the state's top incoming junior basketball players are transferring to Oak Ridge in Orlando.

Both 6-foot-4 shooting guard Antonio Blakeney (formerly of Sarasota Cardinal Mooney) and 6-8 power forward Alex Owens (formerly of Oldsmar Christian) have been cleared by the FHSAA to play for the Pioneers, which already have one the state's top incoming seniors in forward Marquel Willis. Both Blakeney, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Player of the Year (24.8 ppg.), and Owens received scholarship offers from UF in April.

Interestingly, both also played for an Orlando-based travel team whose coach was an assistant at Oak Ridge. He has since been let go from the staff. Interesting. Suffice it to say the Pioneers should contend for the Class 8A title.

Contact Larry Savage at 352-374-5050 or larry.savage@gvillesun.com. And follow him at Twitter.com/sunpreps

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