From the Athenian columns flanking the school to the maritime decor and sea sponges housed inside, it’s clear Tarpon Springs High School is proud of the town’s Greek heritage.
Students and faculty like to boast that its mascot, the Sponger, is the only one in the world. But their tribute to the sponge divers that founded the town was recognized last week, when the school’s mascot was selected by USA Today editors to compete for the title of High School Sports’ Best Mascot. Voting for the first round of the competition, between five mascots from Florida, ends at 3 p.m. today on the USA Today high school sports website, http://bit.ly/YvgU9n.
The school didn’t even know about the competition until late last week, days after voting began last Monday, said Principal Clint Herbic. Now, students are receiving daily reminders to vote, even if it’s on their smart phones during class. So far, the Sponger is thousands of votes away from being named the best mascot in Florida.
The Spongers face stiff competition from the Orlando Cornerstone Charter School Fighting Ducks, the Key West Conchs, Lakeland Dreadnaughts and Laurel Hill Hoboes.
To Herbic, though, the Sponger is the most deserving.
“The spongers were some pretty tough guys, and the community kind of adopted that identity of people that take risks, tough people,” Herbic said. “They literally were down there with hand-held knives sometimes, risking their lives, fighting sharks and not knowing if they were going to make it back up to the surface.
“Anybody can be a tiger or a bull. We’re something special.”
The old-fashioned sponge diver has been a beloved icon in Tarpon Springs since it was created in 1925, seen everywhere from recruitment fairs to the homecoming parade through downtown, said freshman Shantashia Stevenson.
“Kids still hang out by the sponge docks, and I think everyone is proud of how unique it is,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to be the mascot, and I asked Mr. Herbic my first week of school so he didn’t make me try out or anything. It’s a lot of fun. I just didn’t know the helmet was going to be so heavy.”
Some people are surprised to see Stevenson, a petite 15-year-old track runner, don the 10-year-old, handmade costume, she said. Padding is coming out of the gold, plaster helmet, and the orange and tan jumpsuit is a bit baggy; but Stevenson, an aspiring circus stilt-walker, is still able to perform many of the dance moves she learned from video games in the outfit.
The USA Today contest isn’t the first time the Sponger has gained national recognition. David Letterman named it one of his Top 10 favorite mascots about 10 years ago.
Voters have to be 13 or older, and people can vote as many times as they want. If the Spongers win the state round, they will join 51 winners nationwide divided into six regions for a second round of voting from Wednesday through March 14. The winner will be voted on from six finalists between March 15 and 25 and receive $2,000 for its athletics department. Second place will receive $1,000 and third $500.
The money would be a big get for the school, where the budgets have been tight in recent years. Part of the money could be spent on “finally buying a new costume,” said boy’s basketball coach Jerry Woodka.
Old or new costume, the entire town takes a lot of pride in the mascot, said Tarpon High senior Eric Peterson.
“If you’re from here, you really get it; if you’re not, you might think it’s stupid,” Peterson said. “All of the kids go crazy when they see it and are really quick to defend it to other schools if they make fun of it, since it’s about our whole history.”