Last year, the Zephyrhills Bulldogs snapped an eight-year playoff drought by making the postseason for the first time since head coach Reggie Roberts took over in 2010.
This year, the path to an encore doesn’t begin on the practice field, or in the classroom watching game film.
It begins in church.
“I had one of the preachers from a local church say, ‘Coach, you’ve been praying for the playoffs and that’s what you got. Start praying for the state championship this year,’ ” Roberts said while taking a quick break during practice last week.
This year, the goal is a state championship.
But Roberts and the Bulldogs won’t be leaving things up to divine intervention. They’re putting in plenty of hard work as they prepare for the start of the season later this month. Music blares from loudspeakers during practice to keep the athletes motivated while they run drills. Offense, defense and special teams all take over parts of the field to get their practice time in before scheduled breaks.
The players have noted that there’s a new level of seriousness and focus as they prepare for the upcoming season.
“I’ve pushed them. Last week they said it’s been the hardest it’s ever been at Zephyrhills High School, and it probably is because the expectations are higher,” Roberts said. “We’re looking for better things.”
Roberts’ time as coach — he played tight end and linebacker for the school back in his playing days — has been marked by achieving better things. He took over a program that had won just six games in the previous two seasons. It took a year to get things the way he wanted, but since then it’s been a string of winning records, culminating in an 8-3 mark and a trip to the postseason.
The Bulldogs lost a close game to Suwannee High School, and it left them wanting a bigger taste of the postseason.
They’re aiming for a trip to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, where the state championships will be played in December.
Before they can get that far, though, they have to earn it on the field during the regular season.
And before that happens, Roberts wants them to earn it in their studies and in the community.
“The first thing my athletes have to understand is that football is an extension of the classroom. We are student-athletes first,” he said.
Roberts speaks with the decisive tone of a coach who knows what he wants from his players, and he’s already getting their support. They recently worked at a Purple Heart Memorial Dedication earlier this month, and he wants them to bring a blue-collar attitude to everything they do. By focusing on working together and getting things done in class, the coach is convinced it will make them better players on Friday nights.
Roberts will need players to step up and fill some big gaps left by graduating seniors. The coach misses all of them, since they all contributed to the team’s success. But standout players like quarterback Ty Tanner and running back Jaylen Pickett were more than role players, and they’ve moved on. That means the team has to find a way to move on as well.
The coach is confident the team can take the next step with existing talent like Myles Carter, Antwione Sims and Jackie Tucker. And Tucker, a senior receiver, shares his optimism.
“This offseason I’ve been grinding with my two younger quarterbacks, Charles Harrison and Dylan Wood, trying to get them to where my previous quarterback, Ty Tanner, was,” Tucker said.
The 6-foot-2, 188-pound wideout is in his third year with the Bulldogs, and he knows that means taking on a leadership role. He’s embracing the responsibility of being a voice for the team and making sure everyone is doing their job in practice, working out and getting prepared for the upcoming season.
And for Tucker, that includes himself.
“I hit the weight room 10 times harder than I used to,” he said.
The players work hard in the weight room and at practice, where Roberts’ assistants fine-tune their mechanics, and the team races through a battery of drills and exercises.
And, the head coach isn’t making any time for offseason distractions.
They’re in a new district this year.
Roberts isn’t concerned that the Bulldogs aren’t expected to do much with competition like River Ridge and Gulf waiting for them in 5A-8 (“If you look at the polls, we’re way down,” he said. “I love it.”).
The coach brushed off a question about playing longtime rival Pasco High School in November (“Hasn’t even crossed my mind.”).
Roberts also didn’t want to single out any one facet of his team that he expected to stand out this coming season.
But when pressed to choose one — offense, defense, or special teams — the coach gave a smile before responding with a tone that suggested the answer was final.
“Offense. Defense. And special teams,” he said before heading off to focus on his players.
Zephyrhills Bulldogs regular season schedule
(all games at 7:30 p.m.)
Aug. 28 at Wiregrass Ranch
Sept. 4 at Sunlake
Sept. 18 at Gulf
Sept. 25 vs. Fivay
Oct. 2 vs. Hudson
Oct. 9 at Ridgewood
Oct. 16 vs. River Ridge
Oct. 23 at Wesley Chapel
Oct. 30 vs. Anclote
Nov. 6 vs. Pasco
Published August 19, 2015