The Lake Buena Vista football team’s first win did not come easy.
If anything, it was the result of all the hard work and dedication the players put in for two years, and it definitely brought satisfaction — and an unforgettable moment — to everyone in Viper Nation.
“The biggest thing I was most excited about was that the kids got to experience that (feeling),” head football coach Joe Rienzi said. “To see their excitement on their faces was phenomenal, because it sort of validated everything that they knew that we had taught them — that they are good, that they are able to do it, that they are more than capable of beating people. To see their excitement was probably one of the greatest — if not the greatest — moment of my career as a coach.”
The 37-15 win against Colonial High School during the Vipers’ final game of the 2022 football season came a mere two weeks after the boys were able to build momentum during a double-overtime game against Poinciana — a game they were losing 41-14 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and, somehow, tied by scoring 27 points right before the end of regulation.
Even though Lake Buena Vista lost that game 49-47, it was a crucial stepping stone for the boys and the way they saw — and handled — themselves on the football field.
“I think that showed our dedication and that we are going to fight back and not going to lay over to the other team,” said Zackariah Boujidi, junior, defensive end and offensive tackle. “It really made me proud of my team, even though we didn’t win. (That game) showed us our potential. Our coaches would tell us, ‘Guys, if you have the mentality you can do it; keep fighting,’ but you never truly believe it until you do it yourself.”
Out of the 48 players in its roster, the team is losing 17 seniors to graduation this spring, which means it will enter into a reconstructing — and restructuring — phase this off-season.
“We are very fortunate, because we had a lot of seniors that had done nothing but show kids how to be leaders — whether it’s in the weight room (or) at practice,” Rienzi said. “We had such a great group of kids in that first senior class. They were not like ‘Oh, these kids are freshmen.’ … They were like ‘You guys are one of us, we are your friends, and we want to make you better.’
“So, that translated into those kids that are currently juniors, that will be seniors, acting that way,” he said. “They are starting to pull the young kids around saying, ‘Hey, let’s go, it’s your time; you’ve got to be ready to play.’ It’s been great to see (that), because it shows that the kids are buying into the things that we want (for the team).”
So, with 17 spots open — three starting receivers, a starting running back and a starting quarterback among those — in the Vipers’ starting lineup, the coaches — and players — have started to prepare the younger players to be ready to lace up their cleats when spring football arrives.
“The offense is going to be a little bit different next year,” Rienzi said. “We’ve got great kids on our campus and a couple underclassmen (who) are itching to be the next guy up in all kind of spots.”
Part of the group of leaders the team is building and preparing for next season include wide receiver Tyson Tran, defensive ends Boujidi and Brady Ruth, and offensive lineman Andy Jolette.
“(Tran) is always willing to do anything that we need to do, and he has a great attitude,” Rienzi said. “He picks up his teammates (when it’s needed) — the kid is great. He is definitely one that we are going to look out for.”
Both Ruth and Boujidi work as a team — on and off the football field —pushing each other in the weight room and on the field striving not only to make each other better but also everyone around them.
When it comes to the offensive line, the Vipers are lucky: All their starting players will be returning for the next season.
“Jolette is sort of the leader of that group,” Rienzi said. “He’s the leader in the weight room, he’s always on the field keeping guys going, he’s a vocal leader when he needs to be, and kids really respect him because when he goes out there, he shows (them) how to work and it’s great.”
CAPITALIZING ON THE WIN
Despite their first “W” in school history, the Vipers are fully aware of the constant work and effort it takes to return home with that victory feeling. They are looking forward to capitalizing on that first win and turning their next season into a record-breaking one.
“One of the biggest things (for us), is that we got that monkey off our backs,” Rienzi said. “We got that first win, and now the only thing we need to focus on is getting the next one. After that, we are going to focus on the next one, and then the next one, and that’s all we (will) be doing. … That’s been our driving focus and that’s what going to guide us through our off season and through the spring.”
The boys finally are able to set aside the frustration they had been feeling for the last two seasons — without a single win — which was, in a way, holding them back.
“During the first year, a lot of these guys played, and it was really tough; they didn’t know what they were doing, they were learning,” Rienzi said. “But this season, the kids were studying film more, asking questions, they could see on film (what they should’ve done or what they shouldn’t have done), and they could see it. You could see their collective frustration with being so close, it’s like you get right there and you just can’t get over the finish line.”
The team is ready to refine its strong points and nurture its weaknesses so players are ready to face their opponents come next season.
Having a committed group of coaches that is versatile, dedicated and patient when it comes to coaching — and teaching — the younger players the art of football, as well as the trials and tribulations of the sport is one of those strong points.
“While (losing some of those older, more experienced guys) gives some opportunity for more kids to get out on the field, some of them may not have much experience, or any experience at the varsity level,” Rienzi said. “And they’ve got to see (that) it’s a little bit faster, the play is a little bit stronger and (that) they got to be a little bit smarter when they are out on the field.”
The Vipers will work on improving their strong running game and their mental focus during games. However, one of the weak links the boys will need to get improve is their confidence.
“We are not very good at finishing off the games (on a high note),” Boujidi said. “We need to work on getting that extra boost of confidence just so we can finish the game, because we’ve been close in a lot of our matches.”
EXPECTATIONS MET AND TO BE MET
When thinking about how to measure expectations, Lake Buena Vista does not measure success based on the team’s record. Instead, it sees how far the boys have progressed by the growth they show not only on the field but also in their lives off the field.
“Trust me, I want to win more than anybody else, but when I look at what we’ve asked of these kids, our team GPA went up,” Rienzi said. “They came (to) us with a set GPA, so we couldn’t do anything about it the first year, but (it) went up from a 2.6 to a 3.0.”
And those classroom successes translate to the team’s primary goal: Help the players achieve their future goals in life.
“The biggest thing that we want to do is use football to get these kids to where they want to go,” Rienzi said. “Whether is college athletics, some kids are learning management skills and maybe some kids want to be coaches in the future because they fall in love (with football).”
LEAVING A LEGACY
As the Vipers continue to carve their identity into the Central Florida prep football scene, these pioneering players — and their successes — will serve as the team’s foundation.
“People are always going to remember the first group of kids that got a win, but these younger kids coming up they are also going to remember (who showed them to be leaders, who worked hard in the weight room, who spent extra time after practice) and those are the things that I don’t bring up to players,” Rienzi said. “But, those are the things that these younger group of kids have seen and watched because that group was so strong. And now, it’s just going to naturally flow through the program — that’s the legacy that these kids have left, and that’s all we can really ask for as far as what a senior leaves for a program.”
One thing is certain for the Vipers who still have time to play come fall, and that is they are more ready than ever to get back on the football field.
“I believe that we are going to have a great season next year; we are going to make history,” Boujidi said. “We are going to make a lot of people mad by beating them, so I hope that’s our legacy: being the underdogs, being the bad guys.”