OCOEE Aaron Sheppard only has been on campus at Ocoee High for a little more than a week, but already the new football coach for the Knights has noticed something about the group of student-athletes he has inherited.
“They want to win, man,” Sheppard said last week. “They’re hungry — they’re tired of getting beat and they’re going to work hard. … We’ve just got to keep the fire up.”
Announced as the program’s new head coach Dec. 22, Sheppard became the Knights’ fourth coach in the five years since Dale Salapa resigned. Since then, Ben Bullock led the program to two winning seasons and the team’s first district title in 2015 and 2016, while a young roster experienced a setback in 2017 under Jason Boltus and finished 1-9.
The impetus was there, then, for new Athletic Director Bill Alderman and the administration at Ocoee to get this hire right after Boltus resigned ahead of a move back to his native New York. With the program just a season removed from its best ever, the school does not want to see that momentum completely evaporate, and Alderman thinks the Knights have the right guy in Sheppard.
“When he speaks, people stop and listen,” Alderman said. “He’s talked to the kids, and they’re chomping at the bit to go to work with him.”
Sheppard comes to the Knights after two seasons leading the Fort Pierce Westwood High School Panthers. Under Sheppard, Westwood went 9-10 overall and 6-3 in 2017. The Panthers made the playoffs in both seasons he was at the helm, and in 2017 they won the FHSAA Class 5A, District 15 title — the program’s first district title since 2010.
“We turned the culture around — getting the kids to understand who they were,” Sheppard said of his time at Westwood. “It’s more than football, because they could play football.”
Sheppard has high praise for the community and the school at Westwood but said the opportunity at Ocoee was too good to pass up.
“When I actually got a chance to see (Ocoee), I mean, there was no doubt,” Sheppard said. “This is an awesome opportunity with awesome kids. This is a great place to be. They just need a little guidance.”
Originally from Miami, Sheppard starred at linebacker for Miami’s Coral Reef High School before playing collegiately for Bethune-Cookman. Previous coaching stops include Westwood, Jefferson County and Treasure Coast.
Ocoee will be his third stint as a head coach, and Sheppard said he has learned some important lessons from his first two jobs that he will bring to Central Florida.
“You have to be organized,” Sheppard said. “You have to be ahead of the game, and you cannot fly-by-night.”
The new leader of the Knights inherits a roster that, despite its win total in 2017, has several talented players returning — especially its current sophomores.
“I can look around the room — there’s sophomores everywhere,” Sheppard said. “There’s a sophomore (Dexter Rentz) who (tied) the state record for interceptions in a game.”
Sheppard said he is bringing on former Green Bay Packer Nick Collins to be his defensive coordinator and is in an ongoing process of filling out the rest of his staff. His top priority is offseason strength training, hoping to beef up an already-speedy roster.
Regarding what the program will look like under his leadership, Sheppard offered a clear vision.
“We’re going to be disciplined,” Sheppard said. “We’re going to be close, we’re going to be family … and we are going to be physical.”
Perhaps inspired by another group of Knights on the other side of Orange County, Sheppard said that although he won’t make any bold proclamations, he is approaching his new role at Ocoee as that of preparing the Knights to go undefeated in 2018.
“Every team I’ve ever been at, whether it’s the worst team or the best team, I coach them to be undefeated,” Sheppard said.