We’re just days away from the start of the 2021 high school football season. To get you ready for all the action on the gridiron this year, we are presenting our 2021 Football Preview in three sections.
This first one features the programs from Dr. Phillips, Olympia, West Orange and Windermere high schools.
DR. PHILLIPS PANTHERS
Coming off what can be considered a down year for the program, the Dr. Phillips Panthers look to return to their usual standard of excellence in 2021.
Assistant coach Riki Smith is confident they will do just that.
“(The coaching staff) talked about getting back to the basics — scheduling a challenging schedule and cranking up the offseason program,” Smith said. “All those things have come to fruition. We had one of our best offseasons that we had. The staff and players are excited for the season. We’re excited to play again.”
The Panthers finished 2020 with a 5-2 record. Even with major wins over Wekiva, Olympia, Boone and Oak Ridge, it still was not enough; the Panthers were eliminated by Palmetto in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs.
The Panthers already were dealing with a tough offseason after losing a large group of seniors, several of them key contributors to the team. To further complicate the future, quarterback Joe Joe Patti announced in late July he would be transferring to West Oaks Academy for his senior season.
One key returner is linebacker DeMario Tolan, who announced his commitment to LSU this summer.
Once again, the Panthers will have a tough schedule this season, with notable games against Apopka, Timber Creek, Jones, Osceola and West Orange. The reason for a much tougher schedule, Smith said, was because the DP teams that won state championships went through a tough schedule before the playoffs.
“Playing good teams will show your deficiencies,” Smith said. “In 2016, we played a really tough schedule. We went to the state championship … and ended up losing. In 2017, we scheduled another tough schedule again and won the state title.”
The one thing Smith said he was most excited about is the chance to play a full season.
“Last year, the season was short, and to be the best, you have to play the best,” Smith said. “Week in and week out, we are playing a top-flight opponent. We’re excited to play such great teams and great coaches. As a competitor, it’s a blessing.”
As a new season dawns for the Olympia Titans, head coach Travis Gabriel is excited for the team he has in front of him.
“We have a good group of kids (who) work hard and are ready for the season,” Gabriel said. “They want to get better every day.”
And he has reason to be excited. The Titans return three of their top offensive players from last season in quarterback C.J. Brooks and wide receiver Victor Jones Jr. With the loss of only eight seniors last year, the 2021 Titans will have plenty of experience from which to draw.
The Titans finished 2020 with a 5-4 record and notable wins against Oak Ridge and University before losing in the second round of the playoffs to Treasure Coast. The Titans seemed to be a mixed bag when it came to offense. They would put up a great performance one week and then struggle the next. Finding consistency will be a key to success this year.
Heading into the 2021 season, the Titans once again have a tough schedule, going up against the likes of Wekiva, Osceola, Timber Creek, Dr. Phillips and West Orange. Gabriel said he will keep things simple for his players as they prepare for each game.
“We’ll worry about a team the week we play them,” he said.
WEST ORANGE WARRIORS
West Orange comes into the 2021 season with some unfinished business. After a 6-4 record and making it all the way to the third round of the Class 8A playoffs, the Warriors lost to Apopka, which went on to lose in the state semifinals.
As luck would have it, the Warriors get their chance at revenge in the second week of the season.
The matchup is an exciting and personal one for Warriors head coach Mike Granato. He served as an assistant coach with the Blue Darters for several years before coming to West Orange.
“These are the kind of games that make you want to coach high school football in the state of Florida,” Granato said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Although that game will certainly be a measuring stick to see how the season will go, Granato is confident his team will do well with the personnel they have on both offense and defense. Players such as quarterback Tyler Huff and wide receiver J.D. Gibson will be players to watch.
One area to watch will be how the Warriors’ offensive line holds up with having to replace four starters. Luckily, they got some help during the offseason with the arrival of guard Hunter Moss, who transferred from Foundation Academy.
Granato is hopeful that with a full camp this season rather than a short one, the offensive line will be a source of strength.
“We had a great offseason, so we’re feeling optimistic that they’ll do OK,” Granato said. “(Because of) the short camp last season, it was tough, but now that we’ve done a full camp this year, they should be fine.”
On defense, Granato had the unenviable task of having to replace almost his entire linebacking corps, but he feels good about the group he has now, especially because the defensive line will be expected to be the group that brings most of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
While everyone is excited for the dawn of a new season, it means more to Granato and his team.
“Last year was kind of ‘Year Zero’ for us,” Granato said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, we didn’t know what was going to happen, so this is an opportunity for the kids to have the same coaching staff. The seniors said this is the first time in four years they have had the same coaching staff for multiple years. I’m excited to see the growth and development of the program this season.”
Coming off the first playoff win in its program’s short history, Windermere is hoping to secure its first winning season.
Normally, a 2-7 record would not get a team into the state playoffs, but because of the shortened season last year, everyone got in. That was all the Wolverines needed to get their first playoff win against Freedom.
With the playoff setup still to be determined, there is no guarantee the Wolverines will be in. So first-year head coach Eric Olson wants to focus on getting that winning record.
“Let’s get that winning season first,” Olson said. “That’s all we’re worried about right now.”
The Wolverines will be without wide receiver Matthew Richardson, who graduated last year and is on his way to Stetson University. Despite that hole, Olson is confident in his offensive line and the players he has in some of the skills positions.
Windermere has another tough schedule this season, with games against West Orange, Dr. Phillips, Osceola and Olympia being key games.
The Wolverines had quite an offseason. In late July, they held a training camp with U.S. Army drill sergeants. The purpose of the training camp was to set the tone Olson and his staff want for the team: toughness and resilience.
“There were times it felt like we didn’t compete as well as we could have,” Assistant Coach Adam Militello said. “With the camp, we wanted to set the tone for what we wanted out of the kids, and they got the job done.”