By Jeff Odom
The Academy at the Lakes seven-man football team is raising the bar.
The Wildcats have enjoyed three straight playoff seasons under coach John Castelamare, but with a seasoned group returning for next year, the players and coaches agree they want to go farther in their second season as a seven-man program.
“The last three years we’ve been to the playoffs, so we want to keep on doing that and maybe more,” Castelamare said. “We had to change something offensively with some personnel, but when this team gels together, and if they listen and they work hard, then we’ll get there.”
AATL enjoyed a solid year in 2012 that included a 7-1 record and trip to the Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools state quarterfinals where the Wildcats gave up six second-half touchdowns en route to a 60-26 loss against Kissimmee City of Life Christian Academy.
One of the biggest question marks for AATL this spring is the offensive line, which loses most of its starters to graduation.
Tight end and linebacker Jack Fishman said he worked throughout the offseason with his teammates to work out and stay in shape to show some of the new players trying out what the game is all about. He added that he is confident in his coaches that they will find the right players to fill the voids in all positions.
“We just need to get our chemistry back,” Fishman said. “I think that we’re bigger than we were last year, we’re faster than we were last year, and we have guys that have the potential, and if we just get our chemistry back together, our offense will be fine.”
Quarterback Max Stepanents may hold the key to that chemistry.
Like Fishman, the junior-to-be bulked up in the offseason and said the team is ready for any challenges thrown its way.
“It’s only the beginning of the season, and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re working well with the new guys,” Stepanents said. “(Last season’s playoff run) definitely gives us something to look forward to and to work harder. We’re definitely going to have to have a good relationship with (Castelamare), because he makes us better, and we’re definitely going to have to have a good relationship with our players to develop a team with the new guys.”
Injuries could be another major factor. Starting wide receiver Ahkil McGill unknowingly suffered a fractured foot during basketball season that has kept him out of practice, but Castelamare said he should be ready to go when the season starts and added that the team can’t afford many more, especially on offense.
“We’re at a bit of a disadvantage, because we only have 56 boys out of the pool here to choose from,” Castelamare said. “It’ll be interesting to see, because we have a little bit of speed in areas and a little bit of depth in other areas. We just lack a little bit on the line, so those guys can’t afford to get hurt.”
Fishman said while there are obstacles to get through, the team knows it’s in good hands under Castelamare, who coached previously at Ridgewood for 12 years and Wesley Chapel for 11 before coming to the academy in 2010.
“You know everything he says has a purpose; you know he’s not just yelling to yell,” Fishman said. “He’s a proven winner, and he’s gotten teams to championships before, so we believe everything he says and … he has respect just from his presence.”
Castelamare echoed Fishman and added that the respect, along with some veteran leadership, will push the team to new heights.
“They want to keep it up, because the last three years it’s been all about the playoffs,” Castelamare said. “First year it was the first round, second year it was the second and so on. So, they want to keep it going that way.”
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