Tuesday morning, there was no school at International School of Broward (Hollywood, Fla.), so assistant football coach Pedro Nokta was driving several of his players around, helping to clean up debris from Hurricane Irma.
It’s all part of the football program’s mantra of dealing with adversity head-on. ISB began playing varsity football in 2015, so predictably, the charter school, which has only 350 students, has seen some gridiron growing pains.
The Pumas went 0-9 their first season. Last season, they again went 0-9, but those losses included games at 2A state runner-up Champagnat Catholic (Hialeah), Georgia 7A runner-up Colquitt County (Moultrie) and Georgia 4A runner-up Buford.
The Pumas opened this season with a 56-0 loss at traditional powerhouse Lowndes (Valdosta, Ga.). A week later, they got their first win when they defeated Pembroke Pines Charter (Pembroke Pines) 26-2. Getting another win soon may be difficult, however. The Pumas travel to play Friday at No. 10 Brentwood Academy (Brentwood, Tenn.). The week after that, they play at No. 14 Grayson (Loganville, Ga.). Then they take on four-time Florida state champion Cocoa.
That a team with one win in its short history and only 35 players would even step on the same field with those powerhouses may seem ridiculous, but the guarantees the Pumas get from out-of-state powers helps fund other sports at ISB. More importantly, the team’s top players have a better chance of being recruited when they play top-level talent.
“Coming from when I was in high school, I played under a coach at Chaminade-Madonna (Hollywood, Fla.), coach Mark Guandolo,” ISB coach Charles “Man” McRae said. “We were playing teams across the state. If you were ranked and were in the state of Florida, we were playing you. He opened our eyes up, that if you don’t train like the best and I don’t coach against the best and you’re not playing at a level that’s super high, your team will be mediocre, your coaching will be mediocre. Put yourself in situations where your team is against the wall.”
McRae helped Chaminade-Madonna (Hollywood) win the 2A state title as a senior running back and defensive back in 2003. He went on to play at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College in Wesson, Miss., before landing at Mississippi State. He went undrafted, but played in the Arena Football League and was a practice squad player with the New York Jets before playing in the International Football League. He got the coaching bug while playing overseas and jumped at the chance to start the Puma’s football program.
Gulliver Prep (Miami) donated 60 helmets to the fledgling program, but because many of ISB’s players are transfers, other Florida teams have been reluctant to play the Pumas. The team’s scheduling woes increased when the Florida High School Athletic Association went to a points system for its playoffs this season. Elite teams in larger classifications such as St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) gain little from playing a 2A-sized school such as ISB. That difficulty in finding good local opponents is something the Pumas share with some of the powerhouses on their schedule.
“We have a hard time finding games in state so they got in touch with us and wanted to play,” Brentwood Academy coach Cody White. “It’s good for our kids to play somebody from different places. We were welcome to host them and put them up here in a hotel room. His philosophy is to try to play good competition and recruiters will see them on film. He’s trying to build it — it’s certainly not built yet.”
Brentwood, an affluent private school outside Nashville, is helping to raise money for Hurricane Irma relief for ISB and Hurricane Harvey relief for Vidor High in Texas, which is coached by Jeff Matthews, the brother of Brentwood offensive line coach Jason Matthews.
“We’re going to use the game to try to raise money for both schools’ administrative teams, both for the school in Texas and the one we’re fixing to play,” White said. “So they can hopefully disperse it and help the people there a little bit. We thought it was cool because we have a connection to the team in Texas and we’re playing these guys. At least you know, if you raise this money, it’s going to go right to the right people.”