With the high school football season just around the corner, one school in Wesley Chapel is gearing up for its inaugural season.
The Cypress Creek High Coyotes began practices last week, in preparation for its first regular season home opener on Aug. 25 against the Gulf High Buccaneers.
The looming matchup brings intrigue, as it pits the upstart Coyotes against a Gulf program that has gone winless the last two seasons (0-20 combined in 2015 and 2016).
Mike Johnson, the Coyotes first-year head coach, expects the opener to be surreal, for players, coaches and fans alike.
“To be able to walk on the field for the very first time — that’s going to be a cool feeling for everybody,” Johnson said. “That first Friday night is going to be pretty cool. …Whether they (Gulf) break a long losing streak or we win the first game in school history, that’s going to pretty neat, whichever way it does go.”
The Coyotes currently have about 40 players, enough to fill varsity and junior varsity teams; the varsity team will play in Class 4A for at least two years.
The school’s first football team features no seniors though because only underclassmen from Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass high schools were rezoned to Cypress Creek.
The school, located 8701 Old Pasco Road, will have nearly 1,500 students in grades six through 11 this year.
For some players, like Logan Bercaw, switching schools was an adjustment.
Bercaw, a junior lineman, spent the past two years at Wiregrass Ranch.
“It was a little difficult,” he said, “because you started your first two years playing football at one school, thinking you’re going to finish there, and then you get switched out to a different school. It’s nice, because it’s a brand-new school, but it’s a pretty big change.”
Besides Bercaw, much of the 2017 team is composed of freshman and sophomores.
“We’re very young,” said Kevin LaChance, an assistant who coaches running backs and linebackers. “We’re just trying to get something built, start laying a foundation…and to do the best we can.”
With such a youthful roster, the Coyotes’ coaching staff spent much of the first week addressing basic fundamentals, such as safe tackling and blocking techniques, and focusing on running formations and ball protection.
Learning a new playbook and hitting the weight room were emphasized, too.
“We’re breaking it down to the very basics,” Johnson said. “All those basic fundamentals are really going to help them out in the long run.”
Inexperience aside, the head coach is pleased with the team’s results in workouts and practices thus far.
“We’ve been getting after it,” Johnson said. “They’ve come out and put in the work. I was very pleased with the amount of players we had out here and the effort they were giving. It’s definitely a positive.”
The summer practices are especially valuable, considering most of the roster didn’t participate in the program’s spring drills — occupied with other sports and activities at their former schools.
The early returns show the Coyotes have workable talent — particularly at skill positions.
“I think we’ve got some speed, which I enjoy,” said Johnson. “We’re loaded at running back. I think we’ve got quite a few running backs/receiver types.”
One of those is sophomore running back Keith Walker.
The Wesley Chapel transfer made varsity his freshman year, and earned playing time in a crowded backfield that featured Dexter Leverett (1,249 yards on 165 carries), Malik Melvin (358 yards on 53 carries) and Ellrie Allen (117 yards on 23 carries). There, Walker flashed breakaway speed on handoffs (136 yards on 13 carries) and as a receiver (102 yards on four catches).
The Coyotes also have found a viable starter at quarterback, in sophomore Jehlani Warren, a transfer from Wiregrass Ranch. “He’ll be able to run the ball a little bit, too,” Johnson said.
Cypress Creek, meanwhile, marks Johnson’s first varsity head coaching gig.
He previously coached at Stuart Middle School and served as an offensive line coach at Wesley Chapel High School, under former head coach Ben Alford.
He believes he’s up to the task of leading a high school program.
“I learned over the years the process of how to manage and how to handle (a team),” said Johnson, also a former defensive back at Division III Eureka College in Illinois.
That includes conforming to a foundation he calls the “5Cs”— Commitment, Consistency, Courage, Communication and Compassion.
“I’m a big guy on, ‘Be here on time, show me effort in practice, and we’ll find a place for you,’” Johnson explained. “You’ve got to be here, and you’ve got to give me 100 percent all the time, and we’ll definitely find a spot for you, somewhere.”
What the program may lack in initial experience — coaching and playing — it makes up in its new digs.
Cypress Creek offers multiple practice fields adjacent to its football stadium, as well as a Fieldhouse and state-of-the-art weight room measuring nearly 2,300 square feet.
Locker rooms, moreover, features ample space to accommodate both high school and middle school teams.
“It’s very nice,” LaChance said of the facilities. “Everything looks fresh and new; the weight room looks amazing.”
“It’s phenomenal; you can’t beat it,” added Johnson. “If you’re enrolled here, I wouldn’t see why you wouldn’t want to play here. If you have any type of passion to play football, you’d want to be here and involved with that weight room and those practice facilities.”
“It’s definitely a fantastic opportunity for me and the coaching staff and the players,” he said.
Published August 9, 2017