As underclassmen made their way to individual stations during the first day of high school football practice at Cypress Lake High on Monday, first year head coach Richie Rode held back his 15 seniors.
He huddled the group together and looked them in the eye. If first days were all about moments, Rode was certain this was one of them.
“C’mon now, new season, new expectations,” said Rode, a 1997 graduate of Cypress Lake. “Make this season what you want it to be. You can decide what you want this season to be. You have a clean slate.”
Since January, when the former Fort Myers offensive coordinator was hired to take over a struggling Panthers program, the Cypress Lake alum has gone about changing the identity of the team bit by bit.
As part of the last Panthers district championship team in 1995, Rode, 37, understood that to change the culture, he had to build it back up. In the months since, he’s focused on details. He’s concentrated on gaining commitments from athletes.
But on Monday, during the beginning of high school football across Southwest Florida, he needed something different. He looked to motivate.
“For them, I want them to ignore anything outside of us and our family and themselves as a senior class and set their goals and expectations based on what they think and not what has happened in the past,” Rode said. “There is no reason we can’t turn this thing around if we take care of what we need to take care of and they lead us as a senior class.”
Rode said approximately 70 players, including a high influx of freshmen, were out for the first day of practice. The team spent the first two hours taking FHSAA required concussion testing.
Afterward, the Panthers ran through a series of individual stations, then transitioned into base offensive and defensive concepts. Under Rode, the program will use a base 3-4 defense and run a Wing-T spread offense.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Rode said. “A lot of them are introduced to how we are and what we did in the spring. We want to get a lot of enthusiasm. We’re excited for the season and we want to get through these first few days of conditioning and making sure we’re ready with this heat.”
Rode said he was hopeful the Panthers could use a strong spring as a backdrop for a successful fall.
“We have three short weeks before we have to play a good Riverdale team,” Rode said. “We don’t have a lot of time to sit down and get ready.”
The Panthers begin their season August 19 against Riverdale in a preseason classic.
— Cory Mull
South Fort Myers
While the big bruisers and high-profile playmakers of a season ago are gone, Anthony Dixon believes the Wolfpack are as strong as ever to start the football season.
The South Fort Myers coach, in his second year leading the program, saw strong performances over the summer transition into the first day of practice.
The Wolfpack featured a contingent of roughly 70 players before it was whittled down to 50 by the end of the day because of paperwork issues – many had to get their physicals notarized, Dixon said.
Dixon said the coaching staff would focus on the fundamentals over the first week of practice. Under new FHSAA guidelines, football teams would not able to perform live hitting in practice for the first week.
“So we try to pick up the pace,” Dixon said. “With the skill guys it’s easy. Because you’re running a lot of routes, you’re doing a lot of backpedaling. With the running backs, it’s with the ball in your hands.”
Dixon said he also believes this season’s team has a stronger mentality together.
“I think we have more guys with the all-in mentality,” he said. “We’ll be a lot closer. The kids, they’re more friends than the team we’ve had in the past. They care about their brothers.”
The Wolfpack begin their season August 19 against Largo.
— Cory Mull
First-year Dunbar coach Sammy Brown estimates it took all of eight seconds to convince Dwayne Donnell to return as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator after a four-year absence.
“It was one of those things where I’m like, ‘I need you right now,’” Brown said on the first day of fall camp.
With Donnell in the fold, Brown expects to pass a lot more this season compared to the 44 yards per game the Tigers averaged last season.
Donnell, who had Brown on his bench for three seasons coaching girls basketball, spent a good portion of the morning session working with the quarterbacks.
“He comes back and gets everybody thinking they’re pretty darn good,” Brown said of Donnell. “He’s a great asset to what we’re trying to do and we’re glad to have him back.”
Dunbar is coming off a 9-3 season under former coach Phil Vogt where the Tigers won a district title and reached a regional final.
Senior slot receiver Kenny Benjamin said his squad is no longer flying under the radar and the target on its back is quite large.
“We love it,” Benjamin said. “We know that we’re the ones everybody wants to go out and beat. Especially at 7-on-7s all summer, everybody wanted to play us. We love the attention. We’re going to live up to it.”
Brown mostly preached fundamentals on the first day, namely ball security. Dunbar fumbled seven times in a 23-20 win over Cape Coral in a May spring game.
“I just want to get the kids acclimated back to what we’re doing and the success we’re trying to bring to the program and have a championship mentality,” Brown said. “We come in Day 1 wanting to learn how to practice hard, practice right and pay attention to detail.”
— Adam Regan
As fall camp opened at Island Coast High not only were the players more comfortable with their second-year head coach, but coach John Schwochow had a better feel of how to handle practice.
He said last year was extremely hectic and little got done, which put the Gators behind the 8-ball before they ever got going.
On Monday, Schwochow put seniors like quarterback Kory Curtis and receiver Marlon Gaymon in front of the rest of the team as examples.
“It’s their job to make sure everyone is moving at 1,000 miles an hour, full go as hard as they can,” Schwochow said. “The younger kids need to know those are the expectation of what we’re doing.”
The Cape Coral school is trying to put the worst season in its eight-year history behind it.
“The seniors work hard because they don’t want a repeat,” Schwochow said. “Island Coast has been good in the past. Last year was kind of a different year. They expect to be successful.”
At the top of Schwochow’s list is repairing a defense that gave up nearly 42 points a game last season. He brought in defensive coordinator Roy Stabler, who he worked with for three seasons at South Fort Myers High.
“They know the scheme a little more, they know where they fit,” Schwochow said. “I already know some of the guys. I can put them in different spots that is going to make us better.”
— Adam Regan
North Fort Myers
Before North Fort Myers High could excel on the field, coach Earnest Graham wanted to make sure the Red Knights were aligned as a team.
On Monday, he put special emphasis on players wearing their helmets at all times and buckling their chin straps as the team faces a season with sky-high expectations.
“It’s about understanding the little things,” Graham said. “As a third-year coach, I felt like I was probably obsessed with scheme. The second year was just a lesson in leadership and accountability and doing all the small things right.
“We want to break down all those small things in a million different ways so that they’re always conscious of the small things,” he continued. “Everybody buckle their helmets, everybody dressed the same way, everybody taking their helmet off at the same time. We’re blessed to play this game.”
North got on the practice field late, but managed to complete all of its offensive and defensive work while forgoing special teams. Graham said he wants to spend the first few days making sure his players are bringing the right attitude and great effort to the field.
“You can’t reach a kid if his attitude isn’t right,” Graham said.
The Red Knights, who finished 5-5 last season, have a little more than two weeks before facing off against a Deion Sanders-coached Dallas Triple A Academy Aug. 18.
— Adam Regan
Wildcats coach Jeff Hanlon said nearly 110 players were out for the first day of practice Monday.
Entering his second year as head coach of the program, he hopes to build on last season’s 4-7 record.
“It’s going to be a transition for us this year,” Hanlon said. “Last year we had 21 seniors and every one of them got some sort of college offer.”
Hanlon hopes his spread offense can flourish under junior quarterback Philip Setterquist and sophomore running back Willie Neal, who led Estero with two touchdowns and nearly 100 all-purpose yards in the team’s spring game against Evangelical Christian School.
“We’re really young, but we’re the closest we’ve ever been as a team,” said Setterquist, who threw for 65 yards passing in the spring. “We break down every huddle with the word ‘Brotherhood.’”
While Setterquist said his favorite targets are Neal and senior wide receiver Victor Shelly, he believes the Wildcats’ offense has promise.
“I feel really comfortable throwing it to all of these guys,” Setterquist said.
Neal, who featured as a quarterback last season, said he’s challenging himself to reach new heights.
“I want to score more touchdowns, and help my team win more games,” he said.
— Matt Vieceli
At Ida Baker High, coach Brian Conn met with his players inside for about 20 minutes, detailing the afternoon plan.
“We worked on special teams in the spring, but not nearly to the degree that we needed to,” Conn said.
The players also watched parts of a video titled “Safer Tackling, with Pete Carroll,” in which proper tackling techniques were stressed and shown on film.
Conn devoted 90 minutes of the afternoon to special teams work.
“Snap, hold, timing,” Conn told his players before they emerged from the classroom and to the field. “Snap, hold, kick. We need to get it right.”