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Southwest Orange Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 3 months ago

2019 West Orange Observer football preview

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After a long offseason of conditioning and practices, the 2019 high-school football season has finally arrived. Here’s what’s in store for the schools covered by the West Orange Observer.
by: Troy Herring Sports Editor

DR. PHILLIPS PANTHERS

The Dr. Phillips Panthers come into the 2019 season following an exciting 2018 year.

With a schedule loaded with quality teams, the Panthers started the season with a 1-4 record against opponents such as West Orange, Apopka and Wekiva.

What happened next was a rally to remember. The Panthers reeled off five straight wins — including a 19-7 defensive battle against top-seeded Vero Beach in the regional semifinal — before having their season come to an end against Riverview Sarasota.

Although the 7-6 finish — and the district title that came with it — was as impressive comeback, that was simply last season, Head Coach Rodney Wells said.

“Last season and this season are two totally different groups, teams and identities, but what we do carry with us year in and year out is expectations to play deep into the playoffs,” Wells said. “Our guys are expected to play for a long time.”

Once again, this season Wells will have his hands full with a tough schedule. The Panthers are on the road for the first three weeks of the season.

The schedule isn’t the only obstacle. The Panthers’ defense — normally the team’s strength — will have to overcome losing seven starters from last year’s team.

No longer will Wells have tackle machines such as Japerri and Jaquarri Powell. But for the Panthers, it’s always next man up.

“My guys know if they break the top 22, they’re going to play — they’re not going to just be mop-up players, they’re going to play significant minutes,” Wells said. “That’s something that I learned from college — that you have to be deep on the defensive end. Even though these guys didn’t start last year, a lot of them got really good experience.”

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OLYMPIA TITANS

The excitement for Olympia Head Coach Travis Gabriel and his players is at a tipping point, but luckily, the season  finally is here for the Titans.

Sure, the Titans have been in practice mode for the last few weeks, but that’s simply not enough, Gabriel said. 

“You can only practice and work out for so long, and the kids are tired of seeing each other, and they want to play against other teams,” Gabriel said. “There’s excitement around the whole county — and around the state —that football is back.”

After a 3-8 campaign in his first season as the head coach — which included a win over Windermere — Gabriel expects to make improvements with a team mostly composed of returning players. 

Offensively, he will have senior quarterback Garrett Velin and senior running back/receiver Doric Means II, while defensively, he’ll have lock-down corners such as seniors Bryant Casteel and Maurice Booker Jr.

Although Gabriel did lose guys such as 6-foot-4, 285-pound tackle Rickenson Jeantihomme — who now plays at Tusculum College — he is optimistic with the level of talent on his roster.

Once again, the Titans will take on the usual suspects in West Orange, Wekiva and Dr. Phillips, but the hope is that the experience gleaned from last year can help lead the Titans to a successful year.

“I’m bringing back a lot of experience,” Gabriel said. “We have some talent coming back, but I think the experience overtakes the talent. The majority of my starters … I’m only going to have eight or nine seniors (who) will be starters for me. 

“I’ll still be returning 13 or 14 starters even after this season, and I just believe it’s all about building the program and establishing something,” he said. 

The Titans will look to establish the tone early as they take on Timber Creek in their preseason Kickoff Classic game Friday, Aug.  16.

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THE FIRST ACADEMY ROYALS

Fewer teams in the area had a better 2018 season than The First Academy Royals.

Starting with a 58-12 thrashing of West Oaks Academy in the first week of the season, the Royals raced out to an 8-0 record — which included a win over powerhouse Orlando Christian Prep — before falling 28-7 against The Villages Charter. 

The Royals went on to defeat Father Lopez in the opening round of the playoffs before ending their season in a 23-22 loss to King’s Academy. Regardless of the loss, the good mojo is still there for the Royals, even if this season is poised to be an experiment of sorts, said Head Coach Leroy Kinard.

“This is going to be a different year for us, because I can’t tell you what kind of team we have until I actually see them play,” Kinard said. “Almost our entire offensive line is different than it was in the spring. I had guys (who) were in lacrosse and baseball — and so this is just different this year.”

Unlike previous seasons in which the team had been defined by its skill players, this year it’s all about the big men, Kinard said. The strength of the offensive and defensive lines will be at the heart of the Royals’ team, which makes Kinard think it will be more like a BIG 10 style of play.

Although the defense will be strong — with players such as leading tackler Lake Ellis returning — the offense is a different story. The Royals lost guys such as quarterback Matthew Edwards (1,155 passing yards and 12 touchdowns) and running back Rolous Frazier III (1,269 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns) to graduation, meaning there are a few questions that need answers.

Despite those questions, Kinard still has one goal in mind: Make school history.

“If we make the playoffs this year, it’ll be the first time that we’ve ever done four consecutive years in the playoffs, so that’s kind of the goal,” Kinard said.

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WINDERMERE WOLVERINES

Progress is often a slow-chugging machine, but Windermere Head Coach Fred Priest knows its true value.

Last year, following a winless first year in 2017, the Wolverines picked up the first school win on the gridiron. By the time last season ended, the Wolverines had won two games total — a 35-20 stomping of St. Cloud and a 54-14 domination of Celebration — and set toward in the right direction.

Now, with the arrival of the 2019 season, Priest believes the momentum over the last year is being carried over.

“I feel like we have made progress over the last year in the offseason, which is one of the things you’re always trying to do,”  Priest said. “With our young team, it was important to get them into a position — especially strength-wise — where they can play. I feel like we really accomplished that.”

Priest’s team once again will find itself facing another season of growth with a few familiar challenges tacked on.

Last season was the first in which the Wolverines had seniors play, which means this year, they will deal with what all other schools experience—turnover. 

The Wolverines no longer will have starting quarterback Isaiah Jackson (347 passing yards and five touchdowns; 926 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns), and Defensive Coordinator Keith Wood will be working with a front seven that features no returning starters.

Luckily for Wood, he will have players such as leading tackler Dylan Palmer, Will DiSalvo and Jordan Dozier to lead the way on the defensive side of the ball.

Although this year’s team is loaded with inexperience, there is talent, Priest said. But beyond that, this season for his team is more about building confidence and progressing.

“I really think we are going to be better, but I don’t know what that means,” Priest said. “The biggest thing for our guys is I want them to be the best version of who they are — both on the field and off the field — because I don’t think you win consistently until you are that. I think we are making strides in that direction.”

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WINDERMERE PREP

At Windermere Prep, Head Coach Jacob Doss has been counting down the days to the start of football season since the spring.

For him, spring is the pseudo-official start to the football year. And it’s glorious.

“On that first day of training camp, where the grass is cut and the lines are painted on the field, it’s kind of — as a coach — almost like a religious moment,” Doss said. “Then you get the kids out, and they’re running around and you hear the whistles. It just kind of takes you back, and I get butterflies every time I start thinking about this time of the year.” 

Doss has a lot to be excited about for his 10th season at the helm, as his team is coming off a 9-1 season during which the Lakers made a run to the SSAC semifinals. But last year is in the past, and now the Lakers have to deal with losing 11 starters.

Offensively, Doss will be without Kai Patterson, who last year tossed for 1,480 yards and picked up 24 total touchdowns (21 passing, three rushing). It’s a big loss, but he has a few options, including junior Cole Nabavi, who last year picked up a decent amount, of playing time late in the Lakers many blowout games.

Despite not having a few key parts from last year’s team, Doss doesn’t know what this team’s greatest strength will be, but he does have full confidence in his guys.

“We have some talent — we have to build more and come together more in camp, and our offense will change, I think,” Doss said. “I don’t know what our bread and butter will be yet, but we are going to have a lot of our similar principles.

“We’re not going to go as fast as what we used to… because we had those senior guys and a quarterback who has done it for three years,” he said. “But Cole has a great grasp, but I want to slow it down a little bit for him until he gets the hang of it — then we’ll start going warp speed again.”

Troy Herring is the sports editor at the West Orange Times and Windermere Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Mount Olive (BS '12) and the University of Alabama (MA '16)....

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