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 edition, the second in our series, features the programs from Ocoee, as well as the two new programs to West Orange, Horizon and Lake Buena Vista.
After a disappointing 2020 season during which Ocoee went 3-5 and lost in the Class 8A play-in game to West Orange, the Ocoee Knights hope to rebound in 2021.
That will not be easy, because the Knights face a tough schedule this season with marquee opponents such as Wekiva, Apopka, Jones and those same West Orange Warriors that eliminated them in the playoffs. They also lost three key players on defense in Chryse Gunn, Malik Harp and Amir Jones.
However, head coach Aaron Sheppard is optimistic despite a less-than-ideal start.
“There were some issues with clearance and kids getting paperwork turned in, and we missed our first day of practice, but it’s all been good since,” Sheppard said. “I’m feeling good about the season.”
The key for Ocoee’s success will be its offense. The Knights showed flashes of brilliance in some games such as a 36-0 shutout of Freedom and a 43-22 win over Evans. They also proved they can hang around in tough games with close losses to Apopka and Lake Mary.
Having to replace three big players on defense is a tall order though, but Sheppard is confident in the group that he has in front of him.
“We’re a hard working bunch, and I feel we’re going to be very competitive this year,” Sheppard said.
After being a five-public-school area for many years, West Orange County welcomes the Horizon High School Hawks into the fold. The Hawks begin their first season as a varsity football team, along with Lake Buena Vista.
With a brand new team comes the expectation that they will take some time to be good, but the man tapped to lead the Hawks is confident they can be competitive right away.
“We have a little bit of talent, and I think we’ll be able to hopefully surprise some people with what we have,” head coach Dennis Thomas said.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Thomas has been a fixture in West Orange County high school football for almost 20 years. During his 19 years of coaching — nine as a head coach — he was on the coaching staff for Ocoee High School’s inaugural season, spent some time at Dr. Phillips, and he turned Celebration around from a team that had lost 22 consecutive games to a 7-4 record in 2015. That remains its only winning season to this day.
Thomas was also the head coach at Lyman High School in Longwood.
The Hawks’ inaugural season will provide a good chance for the team to win some games. Aside from Lake Buena Vista and Davenport — two other programs making their debuts in 2021 — the combined 2020 record of their opponents was 19-51. One notable player joining the Hawks is junior middle linebacker Bo Wargel, who had 30 tackles, including four for loss, with Windermere last season.
“Every day is a positive,” Thomas said. “You show up and you beat a team. That’s great. We’re taking it one day at a time so the first goal is just to win the first game.”
Thomas added that he was looking forward to enjoying the little moments this season.
“I’m excited about everything,” he said. “Being part of the community and watching these kids become young men. Seeing the community gravitate around football and the school like they have, I’m hyped up to see the school be awesome.”
LAKE BUENA VISTA VIPERS
The other new member to West Orange high school football is Lake Buena Vista.
The Vipers come in led by former Harmony and St. Cloud assistant coach, Joe Rienzi. LBV is his first head coaching position.
Rienzi’s vision for the Vipers in their first year is establishing the offense he wants to run. From his background as the offensive coordinator for St. Cloud, he has a plethora of ideas. His plan is to run multiple offenses to see what works.
“You’ve got to tailor stuff to fit the kids you have,” Rienzi said. “It’s always about learning the personnel, their strengths and design it based on what they are able to do.”
One of the strengths of his young team that he noticed during the first week of practices was their willingness to learn and do what the coaches ask them to do.
“Anything we’ve thrown at them, they have taken and run with,” Rienzi said. “They’re very receptive to coaching and trying to improve.”
One glance at LBV’s schedule, despite their young team, there is a good chance for them to win some games, but Rienzi recognizes it will take some time. For now, he is more concerned about laying the foundation for years to come and looking to the future.
For now, the team is taking in the fact it already has made history — even before the first kickoff.
“They’re the first kids to represent this community,” Rienzi said. “There hasn’t been a high school in Lake Buena Vista, and this community is super excited for it. We’ve had a lot of great support. I’m excited for the kids to go out and represent a community that is ready to embrace them.”