Estero football coach Jeff Hanlon is honest about his goals every season.
While the second-year coach guided the Wildcats to four wins and a playoff bid in 2015, which was a noticeable step up from the previous year, he still believes there are many hills to climb.
“Is it a rebuilding year?” Hanlon asked of his program’s hopes in 2016. “Yeah, you can say that. But really, when you’re trying to take a program from where it is, every year is a rebuilding year.”
At least Estero, which sits in a talented District 6A-11 field that includes Fort Myers and Lehigh, is taking steps in the right direction.
This season will present more of a transition for the Wildcats, who return three starters on offense and six on defense, than a complete rebuild.
Offense: Hanlon’s biggest change finds sophomore Willie Neal moving from quarterback to running back.
It ultimately gives the Wildcats more versatility in their spread Wing-T, an offense installed a year ago following Hanlon’s arrival from Lehigh.
The move puts Neal, who is one of the program’s more dynamic players, in situations to thrive. Seniors Victor Shelly and Kyle Flynn will also see time at the position.
At quarterback, junior Philip Setterquist has been earmarked as the team’s field general after competing as a backup a season ago.
“He has a good background,” Hanlon said. “His father played in the NFL, he was a punter. He’s got a good sense of football.”
Considered one of the team’s better athletes, he’ll be asked to make plays with his feet and work in new receivers like juniors Jamin Adams and Colin Simoneau and senior Carlos Phillips.
On the plus side, Estero retains two starters from the offensive line – Bryce Morales and Nick Spicer — and returns three other juniors who saw time a season ago. The offensive line, Hanlon said, is one of the team’s strongest units overall.
“They’ve been working out in the offseason and gotten really strong,” Hanlon said. “They work well together as a unit.”
Defense: In the Wildcats’ 4-3 scheme, the team will be strong up front. Junior defensive end Raynor Harrison and noseguard Fernando Francisco will provide a veteran presence up front as others find their place, while Spicer could also fit into the rotation.
Juniors Omar Delagarza and Owen Fortner will be given opportunities to make a difference on the defensive line. At linebacker the Wildcats will feature experience in senior Jonathan Rauss and DJ Adams.
“I have no doubt they can come out and have the same success we had last year,” Hanlon said.
Senior Andrew Krupp and juniors Philip Hobbs and Ethan Johnson will also see time within the linebacker corps. At defensive back, junior Keevon Clark will headline the outside, while Simoneau will manage the last line of defense at safety.
Outlook: If the signs of progress within a rebuilding program are through wins, the Wildcats will have a tough road ahead in the first half of the season.
They face three teams – Lemon Bay, Palmetto Ridge and Gulf Coast — who reached the postseason a year ago and another in North Fort Myers who’s expected to make big leaps in 2016.
They have Fort Myers in Week 7. They travel to Naples in Week 10.
Hanlon has cautioned his team not to get caught up in wins and losses.
But he still feels like this year’s program is better than a year ago. He says Estero is faster and has more promise. And he thinks they can compete.
“The gelling of the team, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, you have to do that first before you worry about the wins and the losses,” he said. “The kids did a great job over the offseason.
“We have to keep building week by week and day by day,” he added. “We have to keep getting better and go from there.”
2015 record: 4-7, playoffs
Aug. 18: at Bishop Verot, 7 p.m.
Aug. 26: at Mariner, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2: Lemon Bay, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9: at North Fort Myers, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 16: at Palmetto Ridge, 7:00 p.m.
Sept. 23: Gulf Coast, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 30: at East Lee County, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7: Golden Gate, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 14: Fort Myers, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28: Lehigh, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 4: at Cypress Lake, 7:30 p.m.