In 2008, Rich Dombroski arrived at Estero High School, charged with completely rebuilding a football program that a decade earlier, ranked among Southwest Florida’s best.
Five seasons later, it’s clear at least the growl has been restored to the Wildcats, who secured their first winning record since 2001 with last week’s 48-35 victory over Mariner.
Bringing back the roar depends on what happens in tonight’s showdown with visiting District 5A-11 rival Lehigh.
“Growing up, playing Pop Warner, I knew Estero used to be really good back in the day,” senior running back Eric McFadden said. “We trying to get that back. That’s why I’m so excited about (tonight’s) game.”
With a win tonight, Estero (6-2, 3-1) will earn at minimum a berth in a tiebreaker Monday with East Lee County and Cape Coral to determine the district champion and runner-up who will advance to the state playoffs. However, a Wildcats win coupled with an East Lee victory over Cape will clinch the runner-up spot for Estero along with the program’s first postseason berth in 11 seasons.
“Last year we were in the same situation going into Lehigh,” said Dombroski, whose 2011 team lost 28-7 to the Lightning and finished 5-5. “We knew they were a really good football team and it would be an uphill battle for us.
“But this year, we’re a good football team, too. We’ve got as much a shot as they do.”
Dombroski admits that’s not the feeling he had entering this season, considering the Wildcats lost school-record setting quarterback Ryan Sides, top wide receivers Zach Culvahouse and Justin Milcetich and eight of 11 defensive starters to graduation.
“I thought we’d take a step back this year considering the losses we had,” he said.
Instead, a season-opening 16-7 win over Ida Baker followed by a competitive first half with powerful Island Coast proved the only direction Estero was headed was forward.
“That’s when I thought we’ve got something special going here,” Dombroski said.
The biggest reason behind the Wildcats’ renaissance is their defense, which is allowing just 23.5 points per game, down from 31.2 last season, and has forced 27 turnovers. A season-high six of those came in a 20-3 win over Cape Coral on Oct. 5, the Seahawks’ lone district loss heading into tonight.
“We’ve got a group of kids that believe in what we’re preaching,” Dombroski said. “We’ve got a whole different attitude on defense.”
And that attitude relies on teamwork, said senior linebacker Kyle Brown, who leads Estero with 83 tackles.
“We don’t have the fastest guys on defense but we all play together and everybody gets to the ball,” Brown said. “It’s not just one or two guys, it’s four or five.”
One of the few proven performers returning for the Wildcats, McFadden has followed his breakout junior campaign with an even better senior season, leading all Lee County rushers with 1,198 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Christian Phillips, in his first year as the starter, has done a solid job replacing Sides, throwing for 1,469 yards and nine touchdowns. The well-balanced attack makes it difficult for opposing defenses to scheme for the Wildcats.
Senior receiver and defensive back Ricky Lopez, who has a team-leading four interceptions, said a win tonight signals a turning point for the Wildcats.
“We want to be the new Estero, the team that wins the big game, instead of the one everybody schedules for homecoming,” he said.