If the first four games are any indication, the Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats are on pace to have their first winning season since 2011.
Beyond that, the Wildcats (4-0)—the lone undefeated team in Pasco County— have the makings of a team capable of finding triumphs not seen since the early ‘00s, when the team was coached by John Castelamare.
The Wildcats went a combined 35-8 from 2001 to 2004, and brought home three district championships.
In recent years, Wesley Chapel has been a bottom-feeder in Pasco County. Since their 6-4 season five years ago, the Wildcats went a combined 7-33 from 2012-2015.
But, under first-year coach Anthony Egan, the Wildcats’ recent struggles appear to be a distant memory.
Egan, a former offensive/defensive line coach at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, has guided the team to instant success—including a 50-0 thrashing of Gulf High School on Sept. 23.
While many might be surprised by the Wildcats’ blazing start, don’t count Egan as one of them.
“Once I got here and we started to put in the work, I knew we had a good group of guys,” the Wildcats coach said. “We were working our butts off in the weight room, and everything that we’ve asked them to do, they’ve been very good at making sure they get it done.
“I knew they would be a lot better football team than they were last year, and the year before.”
The team’s individual talent is better, too, starting with junior running back Dexter Leverett, who sat out last season after transferring from Eastside High School in Taylors, South Carolina.
The 5-foot-9, 163-pound playmaker ranks 11th in the state in rushing yards (684), averaging 8.6 yards per carry.
“He’s got it all,” Egan said. “He’s a power back, he’s explosive, and he’s got that top-end speed—the kid runs a 4.53 40 (yard dash). He’s just a really quick kid…and he can make cuts in the open field.”
Complementing Leverett is junior tailback Malik Melvin (202 yards, four touchdowns) and senior fullback Ellrie Allen (53 yards, two TDs).
“We like all our running backs,” Egan said. “Dexter’s just a guy in the spring that really stood out to us.
“We just have a multi-facet approach back there, and we’ve got three guys that can really tote it pretty well for us right now.”
Seeing the depth in the backfield allowed Egan to seamlessly transition from a spread offense to a power-run game over the course of the team’s offseason.
The move has paid off, with the Wildcats averaging an eye-popping 292 rushing yards per game.
“We saw the athletes we had and said, ‘We’ve got to focus more on the run game and get this line blocking’… and it’s paying dividends right now on offense,” Egan said.
The Wildcats’ defense, too, has quickly made significant strides.
In 2015, the Wildcats—under former coach Tico Hernandez—allowed 30.2 points per game. Through four games in 2016, the unit has surrendered just 11.5 points per game.
“Defensively, I saw a lot of issues (from 2015) on film with tackling and pursuit, so…we drill the heck out of that every day,” Egan explained. “We preach intensity, tackling, pursuit, and the guys really work hard at that.
“We don’t see many breakaway runs,” the coach added. “We’ve been able to get good angles on guys and make tackles, and limit those (would-be) 60-yard touchdowns to 15-yard plays.”
Two key cogs shoring up that side of the ball are a pair of juniors in highly touted defensive back Isaiah Bolden and middle linebacker Austen Wittish.
Bolden, a transfer from Bartram Trail High School in Jacksonville, is a consensus four-star recruit, boasting more than 20 Division I college offers.
Bolden’s range and pure athleticism Egan said, is a major deterrent to opposing quarterbacks in throwing to his side of the field.
“If he gets his hands on the ball, he’s gone,” Egan said. “It’s kind of passer beware—if you’re going to throw it over there to that guy, there’s a good chance he gets his hands on it and makes a huge play for us.”
Meanwhile, Wittish—who notched 14 tackles against Ridgewood on Sept. 16—was praised by Egan for his ability to shed blocks and fill gaps to limit opposing running games.
“He…just has a good nose for the football,” Egan said.
The Wildcats don’t appear to show signs of slowing down, especially considering how the rest of their schedule lines up.
With its next two games against Fivay (0-4) and Hudson (2-1), the Wildcats have an opportunity to remain undefeated going into their bye week on Oct. 14.
To do so, Egan said the team must continue to dominate games from start to finish.
“We want to make sure we set the bar high,” he said, “and keep playing to that level.”
A look at Wesley Chapel’s wins so far:
- 13-3 road win against Land O’ Lakes High (Aug. 26)
- 34-21 home win against Pasco High (Sept. 9)
- 42-22 home win against Ridgewood High (Sept. 16)
- 50-0 road win against Gulf High (Sept. 23)
Q&A with Coach Anthony Egan
What’s the transition been like going from an assistant to a head coach?
“Being the head guy in charge has its big benefits and its…challenges to the job. It’s a ton of responsibility—paperwork, fundraising—a lot of things…you’re in charge of. It’s been very challenging at times, but, the risk is worth the reward. Everything that we’re doing out there, and all the time that the kids are putting in and giving it back to us, it makes it worth it.”
How has senior quarterback Jacob Thomas adjusted from a spread-oriented offense to a run-based offense?
“He’s bought into everything we’re trying to do. He’s getting the touchdowns and stats. He’s getting the yardage; he’s just not having to throw 40 times. …He’s all on board with throwing the ball five times (per game) for two or three touchdowns.”
Are you comfortable with the team’s depth through the remainder of the season?
“Right now, we’ve got guys in certain positions that we’ve got good depth at, and we’re a little thin in other places. We’re always trying to rectify that. We don’t want to sell the farm, so to speak, and bring up our (junior varsity players), but we’ve got a lot of depth down there—kids that can come up and help us right away. But, they’re freshman, and we want to make sure that they’re getting their reps. “In the program, we have plenty of depth, but week-to-week, we’re kind of stretched thin sometimes. …By the end of the season, when we bring some of these guys up, we’ll have plenty of depth.”
Published September 28, 2016