St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

The small things come first for county's newest teams

East Tampa's Middleton and New Tampa's Freedom will learn the basics playing partial junior varsity schedules.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002

East Tampa's Middleton and New Tampa's Freedom will learn the basics playing partial junior varsity schedules.

TAMPA -- It doesn't get any more raw, or any more frustrating, than this.

Organized football? Coaches at new Freedom and Middleton high schools are lucky to get organized confusion.

"If we can get 11 kids in a three-point stance, it's a good day for us," Freedom coach Jarrett Laws said.

He meant that in a glass-is-half-full kind of way. On the practice field, a skinny, young receiver caught a 15-yard pass from an even younger quarterback, and Laws went wild.

"See, little things like that just make my day," he said. "He caught the ball. Look at that."

Whereas New Tampa's Freedom is the bright-eyed, spunky new kid on the block, east Tampa's Middleton is the old-school uncle, back from a long vacation.

Middleton, shut down in 1971 when the school system was desegregated, is back with the support and love of its eclectic inner-city community.

It has a football team. And it's not very good.

Not yet, anyway.

Coach Harry Hubbard, with his easy demeanor and deadpan expression, is the perfect leader for these new players, who need more patience than most people are willing to give.

One kid lost his birth certificate. Another needs a physical and doesn't know where to get one. One player is deaf.

Hubbard doesn't flinch.

"My thing is discipline," he said. "I still love them, but you can't have love without discipline. Otherwise, they're going to take advantage of you and think they're on your level."

People want to be a part of it. Parents, kids, neighbors and curious stragglers want to come and watch the Freedom Patriots and the Middleton Tigers, to be a part of the beginning.

The Tigers are supposed to rejuvenate a once-crumbled community. The Patriots are supposed to add grit to a young area still trying to find itself.

Laws and Hubbard don't have a lot in common, but they both use the word "blessed" to describe how they feel about building their teams from scratch.

"I'm so thrilled," said Laws, a 27-year-old former Wharton assistant. "The atmosphere, the game, the patriotism of the school ... every day we get better."

"God put me here for a reason," said Hubbard, who has coached Hillsborough County high school teams since 1985 and graduated from an all-black Texas school in 1971.

"I don't know what that reason is yet, but I know it's for a reason."

Both teams play only partial varsity schedules, with junior varsity teams making up the rest of their opposition. This is the first year new teams will get the mercy of a lighter schedule after county officials cringed at what previous first-year teams went through.

Still, learning to be a first-year varsity player is tough, said Freedom sophomore running back Lorenzo Warren, one of the Patriots' brightest stars.

"There's a lot more responsibility," the 15-year-old Warren said. "We're learning to be a strong team, to give it our all on every play."

There's so much history for these players to make, and Laws hopes they remember where they came from.

"We've started to tape them, and we're making a time capsule," Laws said. "We're going to remember our roots, and always try to remain humble."

It shouldn't be too much of a hurdle this season. The Patriots and Tigers will undoubtedly be the most humble teams in the county.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.