At the start of fall camp each season, Ida Baker High coach Brian Conn has a harsh reminder for his team. When it comes to preseason rankings and district projections, don’t expect to see Baker anywhere.
That’s just how Conn likes it. He’ll happily fly under the radar and watch opponents overlook the Bulldogs.
Some area teams like Baker, without the greatest of expectations, relish playing the disrespect card. Meanwhile, there are Lee County’s blue blood programs like Fort Myers High, Dunbar High, North Fort Myers High and South Fort Myers High who carry the weight of sky-high expectations on their shoulders every season.
With Week 1 of the 2016 season set to kickoff Friday, it will be no different.
While its on coaches like Fort Myers’ Sammy Sirianni to downplay the hype that has fans thinking regional championship, Conn uses labels like “mediocre” and “middle of the pack”, which Baker is tagged with each year, as motivation.
“I tell them that no matter what you kids do nobody is expecting much of you,” Conn said. “And even if you do succeed the next year they’re going to say you won’t.”
In Baker’s case, over the last five years, being buried in the rankings never really lasts for long. The Bulldogs have posted winning records in four of the last five seasons.
Coming off a 4-6 slate in 2015, Conn’s squad is expected to finish in the middle of District 6A-10. However, as Conn knows, opinions can change in the span of a week, especially with a golden opportunity to take down a highly-touted Dunbar team Friday at home.
The Bulldogs took the Tigers, who ended up reaching a regional final last season, to overtime before being beaten by a jump ball in the end zone in last year’s opener.
“We’re hoping to change some people’s minds about us,” Conn said. “We played them very tough last year and are eager for the chance to play them Friday.”
As one of the state’s winningest programs, Fort Myers always commands respect. The Green Wave are used to being hyped in the preseason and Sirianni understands it’s natural for teenagers to buy into it.
“Inner belief in yourself is important, but you have to channel it the right way,” said Sirianni, whose team has won 21 games the last two seasons and returns 16 starters, including three-star recruit Darrian Felix.
“I really believe we’re not a very good football team on Aug. 24, especially with where we hope to be later in the year.”
The Green Wave along with Charlotte and Naples are among the favorites to come out of Region 6A-3.
Last season Fort Myers had to rally back from some shaky performances to start the season to finish 9-3 and reach the second round of the postseason. That included losing its opener for the first time in 12 years to Palmetto High, which it will face on the road Friday in a rematch.
Sirianni scheduled the Manatee County team with the sole purpose of challenging his team early. The loss took the team down a few pegs and prepared it for the rest of the season.
“The greatest respect you can get is everyone targets the game against you, they circle it, they want to win it,” Sirianni said. “We expect we’re going to get the opponent’s best shot and we’re better for it.”
North coach Earnest Graham, whose team opens with Riverdale, expects a similar situation with the talented Red Knights having a target on their back to open the season for the second straight year. It didn’t go well last year with Florida State running back commit Zaquandre White losing half of his junior season due to suspension.
North went 5-5 and missed the playoffs, serving as a learning experience to Graham and his players.
“There’s a lot of hype and now we’re used to it,” Graham said. “We know we can’t control anything but what we do as a team. If we do what we need to do it all will take care of itself.”
Much like North, Lehigh entered the 2015 season with a good amount of preseason hype before injuries and a five-week suspension to head coach James Chaney derailed it. In Chaney’s second year, the chatter about Lehigh has died down, allowing him and his staff to stress what is important rather than what is projected in the media.
“These kids want to win, but it’s our job as coaches and leaders to show if you don’t do A, B, C and D, you can’t win,” said Chaney, whose team opens with Palmetto Ridge . “A lot of that doesn’t have to do with the way you practice and play. It’s the things you don’t do on the field. It’s the weightlifting, being accountable and being a good teammate.”
In South Fort Myers’ current situation, team unity is needed more than ever. The suspension of second-year coach Anthony Dixon as a result of an investigation into an after-school sex incident last May has left the players and coaching staff in a vulnerable position during a season where they’ll seek a fifth straight district title.
Interim coach Matthew Holderfield said the shock of losing Dixon weighed heavily on the players’ minds last week, but this week preparing for the Wolfpack’s opener with Island Coast has shifted the focus.
“It’s on their minds, but I really feel like all the coaches — we’re all really close — the players know where they’re coming from. We know where they’re coming from.”
The high expectations remain the same because they know that’s what Dixon wants.
“They take pride that they’re South,” Holderfield said. “They know what that represents.”
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