By Kyle LoJacono
The Academy at the Lakes football team has been on an upward track since veteran coach John Castelamare took over the program three seasons ago.
The Wildcats made the playoffs in 2010 and finished 7-5. They improved to 10-2 a year ago with a trip to the six-man state quarterfinals.
Castelamare, who coached for 11 seasons at Wesley Chapel High before coming to the academy, has seen tremendous growth in the players following another offseason of intense workouts.
“They’re a lot stronger now,” Castelamare said. “They’d never done all the lifting like we do now before I got here. We had to just teach them how to do those things, and now you can see it’s paying off. It takes a little time, but now they know what they have to do all year round, not just in the fall.”
The players have also benefited from Castelamare’s 40-plus years of experience coaching football and his disciplined approached. The returning players have high expectations for what is possible in 2012.
“We can win states with this team,” said 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior lineman/inside linebacker Jack Fishman. “We have to keep working, but we have what it takes. … It’s been a culture change. We’re more organized with coach Cass. Nobody is running wild and we’re winning a lot more.”
A state title would be the program’s second following the six-man championship won in 2006. The Wildcats are moving up to seven-man football this year, but remain a part of the Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS).
The seven-man league comes with traditional rules.
Apart from a field only 80-yards long and 40-yards wide, the new format uses the same rules used in 11-man football. The six-man division prevents quarterbacks from running the ball without a double handoff, but allows for all players, including lineman, to go out for passes.
The more familiar rules in place not only fit the Wildcats’ personnel, but also Castelamare’s beloved run-heavy wing-t offense.
“For me, I love it because those six-man rules were a little crazy,” Castelamare said. “Everyone goes out for a pass, not me. I like to run the ball and control the game. Now with 11-man rules we can do more things, and the quarterback can run with the ball. Our quarterback from last year, A.J. (Carlson), is going to be mad because he couldn’t run with it.”
The new guy under center is sophomore Max Stepanets, who is already 6-foot-5 and 195-pounds. He also doesn’t shy away from contact.
“I think I’ll be able to surprise some people because I’m a quarterback who loves to hit,” Stepanets said. “I love hitting.”
Protecting Stepanets and opening holes for the backs is an offensive line that has been together for three years. The unit returns center Isaac Klopotek along with Alex Stark and Fishman.
“We’ve left them there and they’ve gotten bigger and stronger,” Castelamare said. “They’ve been working on their speed, and I expect this year if we need to go get a couple tough yards we should be able to run for it. Forget that flashy stuff the other guys do.”
The academy does lose its most prolific playmaker in fullback Jarrett Harvey, who had 62 touchdowns with 2,684 yards last year. His efforts earned him a scholarship with Webber International University in Babson Park, making him the first boy from the school to ever sign with a college.
Moving in at fullback is junior Evan Gordy, who used his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame to run for 113 yards on 15 carries and three scores in 2011.
“Evan runs a different way,” Stepanets said. “He’s bigger than Jarrett, but he’s not as quick. He’s going to able to take it right up the middle. This kid is huge, and he runs about a 4.5 40(-yard dash). He can play just about any position, so he can do some things.”
The squad returns junior wingback Ahkil McGill (624 yards, eight touchdowns).
“It’s really exciting,” McGill said. “We’ve got a new quarterback stepping in, and he looks pretty good. We’ve got a new fullback who’s looking pretty buff.”
The speed from the 5-foot-10, 150-pound McGill and the power of Gordy and Stepanets give the Wildcats different options.
“We have a lot of combinations we can use now, especially with the new rules,” McGill said. “We’ve got speed, we can run with the quarterback to do those option plays, we’ve got power with Evan up the middle. We can do a lot of things.”
Castelamare said spreading the ball around will likely benefit the offense.
“Last year everyone was looking at Jarrett, but Ahkil was pretty good too,” Castelamare said. “I don’t know if we’ll have that breakaway guy all the time, but we’ll get down to the end zone.”
Home games played at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, 3032 Collier Parkway
Aug. 24 vs. Lakeside Christian at 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 31 Bye
Sept. 6 vs. Town ‘N Country Christian at 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Elfers Christian at 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 21 TBA
Sept. 28 vs. Washburn at 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. TBA
Oct. 12 at Citrus Park Christian at 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19 vs. The Rock at 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 26 at Solid Rock at 7:30 p.m.