Baker's Sports High School Media Day draws football stars from across Northeast Florida

Clayton Freeman and Juston Lewis
The Times-Union
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Tocoi Creek players look out toward the TIAA Bank Field surface during Baker's Sports High School Media Day. The St. Johns County school is kicking off its first season.

The best in high school entered the home of the Jaguars.

About 50 high schools from across Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia arrived at TIAA Bank Field for the annual Baker's Sports High School Media Day, spotlighting storylines from all around the gridiron.

This Media Day marked a return to the NFL venue for the first time since 2018. In the years between, it's taken place at the University of North Florida's UNF Arena in 2019 and the Winston Family YMCA in 2020.

The return to the stadium drew rave reviews from numerous players and coaches, from giant schools like Bartram Trail to far smaller programs like Young Kids in Motion Academy on the Southside.

"It's a dream come true," said Ravens senior Younique McKinney. "The Jaguars have always been my favorite team, and this is where I've always wanted to play."

Back to the gridiron:Northeast Florida teams welcome return to 2021 high school football practice

Counting down to action:Jacksonville teams ready to kick off 2021 high school football practice

New name, old look for Generals

Everyone knew it was coming.

Still, at first glance, it was hard not to do a double-take.

Five-star cornerback Jaheim Singletary and his teammates walked into Media Day with the familiar blue jerseys — but with Riverside on the chest instead of Lee.

The 94-year-old school is in the midst of a renaming process approved by the Duval County School Board this summer. While the name isn't the same, the new Riverside will be known as the Generals, just like the old Lee.

"It's a big change, but it's coming along really good," Singletary said.

Singletary is getting used to the spotlight himself these days. A blue-chip recruit coveted across the nation, he de-committed from Ohio State a week ago and declared his recruitment "fully open." Since then, he's found himself in the eye of the recruiting storm.

"I'm getting calls and texts from everyone," he said. "I'm trying to give everybody a fair shot."

Jackson linebacker Grayson Howard stands overlooking TIAA Bank Field during Baker's Sports High School Media Day.

Tigers playing for coaches in 2021

Jackson football is entering the new season with bright hopes, but also heavy hearts.

During the off-season, the Tigers have endured the deaths of two assistant coaches — Donald Rocker, at age 26, and Lin-J Shell, at 39. 

"They're coaches that were young and had such a relationship with our kids," said Jackson head coach Christopher Foy. 

Now, as the fall approaches, the team is remembering its members lost far too soon, and playing as a tribute to their former coaches.

On the field, the future looks promising for Jackson, which returns some of the area's top talent.

That list includes linebacker Grayson Howard, a rising junior with sideline-to-sideline range and offers from Power Five programs from all across the nation, and starting quarterback Jalen Sonnier. As a junior, Sonnier was among Jacksonville's most improved passers, boosting his completion percentage from 42 to 68 percent.

"We're senior-heavy, and these guys are battle-tested," Foy said. "We're looking forward to being real successful this year."

Double champion chooses Commanders

The summer transfer season hasn't slowed down, with a double state champion among the latest names on the move.

Senior safety Christian Ellis won a Florida High School Athletic Association football championship at Trinity Christian, then captured a 4x100-meter relay title on the track.

This year, though, he's planning to line up as a two-way threat for White, playing in both the offensive and defensive backfields.

Committed to Coastal Carolina, Ellis becomes among the Commanders' leading recruits in recent years, perhaps the school's biggest since Super 11 lineman and UCF signee Jordan Johnson in the 2016 class.

"I'm hoping to rush for 2,000 and on defense to keep doing what I do," Ellis said. "Make plays and get the ball."

They are the champions

Over the years, Bishop Snyder — which had finished 2-8 in three of the previous five seasons — hasn't often been associated with football celebrations. 

But look again: This year's Cardinals entered Media Day as proud champions of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, the state-wide independent tournament that they won last fall.

For head coach Travis Markoski, that's a positive sign — as long as the next wave of Cardinals can avoid complacency.

"We're proud of what they did last year and the accomplishments that they made," Markoski said. "But like I told the boys, that's in the past and we've got to pick up from there."

Bishop Snyder is scheduled to open the season against Vero Beach St. Edward's on Aug. 27.

Notable

  • It was a newcomer that dominated the early spotlight on Thursday. First-year head coach Ciatrick Fason and Fletcher was the first program in the building. He wasn’t shy about his goals, wanting to transform Fletcher into a powerhouse program. Fason is a Fletcher alum and has vested interest in the long-term success of the school. It remains to be seen if that success will come, but so far, he’s doing the right things.
  • There’s a wealth of talent in the First Coast. It’s almost hard to understand it until you see how many schools brought top-ranked recruits. Even the players that aren’t heavily recruited will likely make a splash during the season. The respect that coaches have for each other transfers to the players and it makes for great football relationships. It’ll be on full display in a few weeks when the season officially kicks off.
  • It's worth noting that with the wealth of talent on the field comes a wealth of expertise from media outlets that cover them. The different content providers and how they interact with different teams deserve acknowledgement. The carousel of interviews was dizzying to watch, but each outlet seemed to have a handle on what they needed to do.

Quotable: Riverside head coach O.J. Small

"COVID is real and I preach that right there," Small said on his message to players about protecting themselves. "I tell them they have to take all the safety precautions possible. The kids have to make sure they’re being smart as far as wearing a mask, washing their hands, wearing dry clothes after practice. It’s the small things. A lot of them have elderly parents or they live with their grandparents so they can’t be selfish and only think about themselves. They have to keep their family safe."

Quotable: Creekside head coach Sean McIntyre

"We are going to put our kids in adverse situations every single day, in a competitive environment and make sure they have the ability to withstand those things when they happen on a Friday night," McIntyre said about building toughness. "But more importantly, to be able to withstand those things in their life after they graduate. When things are going hard at home, or with their girlfriend, or with their family. So that they can show up in those situations and help them be successful in those situations as well."

Quotable: Columbia head coach Demetric Jackson

“There’s a sense of pride at Columbia that runs more than just through the players,” Jackson said on the culture at Columbia. “It runs through the school; it runs through the community. They have a long, storied, rich tradition of having some great football teams and a good program. We want to continue that as a new staff. Build off that foundation that has been laid. That Tiger Pride means something, and these guys really care about football in Columbia County.”

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