BRADENTON, FLA. -- Team Tampa had talent, maturity, revenge, attendance and home-field advantage on its side Sunday afternoon in bringing home the IMG Madden Football 7-on-7 National Championship.
Team Tampa went a perfect 9-0 in the double elimination tournament, including defeating rival team South Florida Express Elite, and twice crushing defending champion Maximum Exposure Blue, an all-star team from Michigan that last year beat Team Tampa for the title.
The roster for Team Tampa reads as a whose who of the area. By a conservative count, 13 of the 24-member team are locks to play football for a BCS school. Another handful will also play in Division 1.
Only one team -- South Florida Express Elite, has a roster rivaling that of Team Tampa. But several of Elite's players were unable to make the tournament over the weekend, while Tampa had near-perfect attendance.
Led by superstar recruits like cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Leon McQuay III, Team Tampa held every team to less than 20 points in tournament play. In most of the games, Team Tampa had put the contest away and inserted its reserves.
Team Tampa was only seriously challenged once in tournament play, by SFE Express Elite, in the semifinal of the winner's bracket, with Tampa winning 24-18. Elite had the athletes to cover Tampa's receivers, but a two highly questionable calls resulting in a score and 40-yard gain went the way of Team Tampa.
In the finals of the winner's bracket, Team Tampa encountered the team on which they had focused the entire off-season after losing to them in the finals of the 2011 tournament: Maximum Exposure Blue.
This time, the results would be different, as Tampa, which was shorthanded in 2011, had its full squad Sunday, while Blue was missing some key contributors.
Blue, led by Michigan QB recruit Shane Morris and tight end recruit Khalid Hill, quickly found itself down by two touchdowns early in the contest as Michigan's athletes could not find their way open against Hargreaves, McQuay (at left), the likes of the Griffin twins of Lakewood High at corner, and linebackers Nigel Harris and Rocky Enos. Morris was intercepted several times as the game wore on, as he was forced to try very risky throws. Tampa secured its spot in the championship with a 26-9 lead.
It appeared that SFE Elite would again face Team Tampa in the championship, but in the final of the loser's bracket, Max Ex Blue easily defeated SFE Elite, a surprise to many. Shane Morris was surgical in picking apart SFE's defense, and Elite struggled to hit the big play, as Blue advanced to again take on Team Tampa.
The final was perfect from a journalist's standpoint, with the revenge angle present for Team Tampa. In truth, it was anticlimactic and observers agreed that unless Blue had flown in some new defensive backs and receivers during the lunch break, more of the same could be expected.
In good fun, Team Tampa's players were quite vocal during the tournament, and especially so in their games against the boys from Michigan.
And Tampa backed up the talk, as Team Tampa's receiving corps of East Lake's Artavis Scott, Seffner Armwood's Alvin Bailey, Jesuit's Travis Johnson (pictured, a tight end in college), Tampa Bay Tech's Richard Benjamin, Gibbs' Maurice Hall, and Tampa Catholic's Zach Benjamin were impossible to cover.
Bailey was the leader of the trash talk, having recently made a recruiting visit to Michigan and bonding with some of the player's on Blue's roster. "Too slow, too slow, y'all boys too slow," he said as he raced for the end zone. Travis Johnson, seconds before catching his fourth-consecutive pass on the goal line, told the opposing defensive back to get in the weight room.
Tampa effectively used a 4X1 set, with Johnson, Benjamin, Scott and Bailey to one side, with the 6'5" Zach Benjamin on the backside.
It forced Blue to use man coverage or cover-3, which put the Michigan team in a bind. Choose to double Benjamin on the backside, and leave the defense a man short against the front side that featured four receivers. Don't provide help over top with Benjamin, and face a losing deep or jump ball situation against the 6'5" receiver from Tampa Catholic.
Team Tampa pulled its starters up three touchdowns, as Hargreaves and McQuay again intercepted Morris. The final score read 27-18.
Team Tampa fit together well as a team. They were a generally likable bunch. They had size on the outside in Johnson, who well could have been the MVP of the event, and Benjamin. Inside, they had the quickness of Scott and Bailey, who were also threats to go deep down the seams. And that Richard Benjamin, himself a BCS recruit, was the fifth receiving option, probably best illustrates the depth of Team Tampa.
The major beneficiary of the embarrassment of riches at receiver is East Lake's Pete DiNovo. The senior quarterback earned himself an offer from UCF and USF for his performance. DiNovo was calm and rarely forced passes, instead electing to take a sack (which in 7-on-7 football does not lose yardage) and play another down.
With five BCS receivers, two of the best defensive backs in the country, a poised, accurate quarterback, and generally more maturity and cohesion than the other squads, Team Tampa took home the national title.