MIDDLEBURG - Former Clay High football head coach and athletic director John Stilianou now is wearing red as opposed to his 16 years of Blue Devil blue after accepting a new position at Middleburg High School.
“I got the red shirt first thing,” said Stilianou. “We are diving in head first as I always do.”
Stilianou accepted a position titled director of culture, athletics and community engagment, a newly formed spot in local athletics.
“When I first became an athletic director two years ago, it was Martin Aftuck (MHS Principal) and Alan Powers (MHS Athletic Director) who were my mentors,” said Stilianou, who, since arriving at Clay in 1999, has coached a slew of Blue Devil sports; football, flag football, track and girls and boys weightlifting in his storied career at Clay High School. “I was new to the athletic director spot and those two gentlemen helped smooth the ride.”
Stilianou’s tasks in his new position is to raise funds and put the athletes out in the community as role models for younger potential Middleburg High students.
“I’ll be out trying to raise some money and getting into the elementary schools,” said Stilianou, 41, with wife Amanda Stilianou taking principal position at the Clay Virtual School after a stint at Oakleaf High School. “Honestly, it involves a switch from coaching to administration. I’ll put the same energy into this position as I did when I was coaching.”
Stilianou noted that most athletic budgets come from the support outside the school.
“People don’t realize that most of the athletic money comes from the support of the community,” said Stilianou. “The high school athletics has to give back to the community to get that support.”
Stilianou’s career at Clay is highlighted by a slew of championship finishes including state titles for girls and boys weightlifting; Teddy Monroe and Alexandra Hamilton, a state championship game finish for football as a defensive coordinator as well as flag football head coach with daughter Mikayla a key player, plus an major upset district basketball title with a thrilling come-from-behind win over a top-ranked Ponte Vedra High School.
“To narrow down the top performances I’ve been a part of as a coach, when Alexandra Hamilton won her state title, she set the state record while doing it,” said Stilianou. “She cleaned 170 as a 110 pounder which was huge which set up a kind of surprise state title later on with our heavyweight Sabrina Palmares. Palmares was a first year lifter. Those girls stepped up big.”
For the boys weightlifting, Monroe needed a bit of coaching gamesmanship from Stilianou to get past a formidable opponent with a seemingly insurmountable lead after the bench press.
“We were way down after the bench press, but we knew that Teddy had a great number for clean and jerk,” said Stilianou. “The other coach was telling his guy he had it in the bag and all that. I walked over to Teddy and asked if he heard the coach telling his guy he had it won. ‘You are nobody to them’ is what I said. He put 300 on the bar on the first lift and won it right there.”
For his flag football girls, twice Final Four finishers with back-to-back state semifinal losses to eventual champion Tampa Robinson the past two years.
“Our first region playoff run in 2017 ended with a controversial loss in the region finals to Choctawhatchee who was legit the top team in the state,” said Stilianou. “My kids were devastated by the loss because it was a bad call that beat us. The following year, we had them again in the region finals,” said Stilianou. “I remember they arrived in the old yellow school buses with the coach telling me they had to save money for next week’s game and the charter busses and hotel expenses.”
Stilianou, ever ready to fuel a fire to inspire, shared the Choctawhatchee’s thoughts on playing the Clay High girls.
“I asked my team if they really wanted to take the field against this team,” said Stilianou. “Then, Chocto scored in the first two minutes of the game. I remember Skye Paradise catching a fourth down pass on her knees and then next play, Alexis, Stilianou’s daughter, catches pass that they miss the flag and she gets to the 10 yard line. Quarterback Ciara Zino runs in for the score and PAT and we go ahead with 10 seconds. They were utterly shocked. That was an amazing game.”
In last year’s return to the Final Four, Stilianou got a late flag pull by defender Jenna Hill to thwart a gamewinning breakaway run by Godby in the the region final.
“Godby was the top-ranked team in the state and their quarterback was fast as lightning,” said Stilianou. “She broke and was gone. Jenna ran her down and got her flag to save the game and put us in the Final Four again.”
For the football program, Stilianou, with then head coach Joshua Hoekstra, got a memorable run on defense to fuel a state championship game berth; a 66-9 loss to American Heritage, that also came with thrilling finishes.
“We had that 74-73 win over Bishop Kenny that is still a record that was followed by a 9-7 win over top-ranked Lakewood High out of St. Pete,” said Stilianou. “We beat North Marion in a track meet game that featured two great players going at it; our running back Bilal Ally and the North Marion wideout Freddie Swain.”
Stilianou played a bit of time out gamesmanship to get a final look at North Marion’s final play of the game when defensive back Tony Stephenson lined up wrong on the formation.
“I had no more time outs and he was lined up totally out of position,” Stilianou. “I was screaming my head off for Tony to adjust and they snapped the ball and I thought ‘Oh my God, they are throwing to Freddie’. Tony was reading the quarterback’s eyes the whole time and intercepted the pass. I remember that one like yesterday. It was one of those ‘No, No, No, Yes’, what a play moments.”
In the first quarter, with Evan Martin covering Swain, Stilianou was concerned because of Martin’s week of practice covering the Swain attack that was not very successful.
“I was on him all week about not getting sucked into the under route and he just didn’t seem to be getting it,” said Stilianou. “The first time they threw that pass, Evan stepped in front and pick-sixed it. He ran it into the end zone then ran all the way to me and said ‘That was for you’. There were a lot of moments like that in my 20 years.”
Stilianou’s most unlikely win, a district title win over Ponte Vedra in girls basketball, came with a somewhat prophetic halftime speech.
“We were down by 10 at the half and I looked at them and told them they would remember this game because you are going to win this if we stay close in the fourt quarter,” said Stilianou. “I didn’t really think it would affect them, but they played their butts off in the fourth quarter and won that game and the district title.”
Stilianou’s best opposing athlete was Bishop Kenny quarterback John Wolford who dueled it out with the Clay High defense in the historic 74-73 Clay win. Stilianou also got win over Tim Tebow and Nease.
“Wolford was so smart and made fantastic decisions and he had our number,” said Stilianou. “We held Tebow to 150 yards throwing, but he ran for like 275 yards. Middleburg High’s Gary Barnridge, a tight end with the NFL Clevelan Browns, gave us fits in 2003.”