First-year Estero coach Jeff Hanlon staged a lock-in at the school for his team before the season. During a bonfire he handed out index cards where each player wrote down their team goals.
Some of the cards mentioned a .500 or better season. Others strived to make the postseason after a year’s absence while some said the expectation was to win a district title. A few bold players hoped for an undefeated season.
“I’d rather have them wanting to win every game,” said Hanlon, whose Wildcats currently sit at 2-5, with a laugh. “The most important thing, though, is they stick to their goals and never give up on them.”
One of the forgotten teams in Southwest Florida after an 0-5 start, Estero still has most of its goals on the table. Starting with a tall order at Fort Myers High Friday, the Wildcats can make a push toward a District 6A-11 title. Even if Estero falls to the Green Wave, a win later in the season against 1-5 Lehigh could clinch a playoff berth.
Hanlon would rather not have to collect and put away equipment at the end of the first week of November. Playing an 11th game is the priority.
“I’d rather learn from mistakes in early losses than peak early,” Hanlon said.
And there were plenty from which to learn.
On offense, linemen missed assignments, the wrong reads were made in the backfield and running backs hit the wrong holes.
Defensively, penalties were rampant, defensive backs weren’t jamming at the line of scrimmage and stellar play on first and second downs was squandered when the unit allowed long scoring plays on third down.
During the Wildcats’ season opener, Mariner scored 21 points in the final 4 minutes of the first half and won 21-14. The following week against Lemon Bay, two Estero defenders assumed a tackle was made, stopping short of the play only to find the Manta Rays ball carrier broke the tackle and dashed 67 yards to set up a score from which it never recovered.
Back-breaking plays like that defined Hanlon’s team.
And an injury to senior running back Wilkinson Glesil, a Division-I prospect, during a practice after Week 1 seemed to be a season killer.
“You can’t ever replace a guy like that,” Hanlon said. “But I had guys four guys — Doug Gaymon, Jeremy Barrett, R.J. McLean and Alec Eschenwald — come up to me and tell me they would carry the load. As bad as that was it brought us more together as a team. It’s really one family, one team, one heart, one beat, one team.”
It’s a clever rallying call combining a popular motto used by late Estero athletic director and cross country coach Jeff Sommer and the second part coming from Hanlon. Sommer tried to pry Hanlon from his previous coaching stops in Naples and Lehigh over the last 11 years and was finally successful in January.
“We were just on the same wavelength when it came to coaching and building a program,” Hanlon said.
Over the last month, players sensed they were constantly improving even if they weren’t winning. Against Gulf Coast, one of the top teams in Collier County this season, the Wildcats shut out a potent offense still playing its starters in the second half of a 41-2 loss.
Hanlon brought in a crow’s nest to film practices so players could see their mistakes. The improvement over the last two weeks has been noticeable.
“We haven’t played to our best ability this season,” Eschenwald said. “These last two weeks we’ve been playing like we should have before. We still have every goal in front of us.”
McLean, Barrett and Eschenwald all found the end zone in a 39-13 win over East Lee County Oct. 2 to give Estero the inside track on a playoff spot. The Wildcats defense then held up, stopping a Golden Gate two-point conversion attempt late to come away with a 21-20 win last week.
“You can just see how much our spirit has been lifted,” senior linebacker Devon Philip said. “But we’re not done yet.”
Estero enters this week as a considerable underdog against a historic Fort Myers program.
Looking back on past mistakes, Philip realizes the Green Wave has a wealth of big-play threats on offense, including quarterback Edwitch Merisier and running back Darrian Felix, who could turn a close game into a rout.
“Everyone has to rally to the ball,” Philip said. “Everyone has to try and make a play on the ball. We can’t let up.”
None of the Wildcats are ready to tear up their index cards. The journey to an 11th game is far from over.