The Academy at the Lakes (AATL) Wildcats varsity football team undoubtedly feels it has a target on its back in 2019.
And, why not, when you consider the team has won 20 consecutive games en route to back-to-back eight-man state titles in 2017 and 2018.
But, it’s something the team is used to of late, players insist, even back to when the program was mired through three straight losing seasons from 2014 to 2016.
“We’ve had a target on our back since we were 2-8 (in 2016),” said junior quarterback and fourth-year starter Jalen Brown. “Ever since we were not that good, everyone’s wanted to beat us, but now I think if they beat us, it just means more.”
“Everybody’s impact game this year is us,” said senior defensive end/left guard Elijah Freedman. “Everybody wants to come get a piece of us, because we never had any respect in the past. We were that team that everybody was hoping to play to get that easy win, and now we’re the team that everybody’s coming after to try and take down.”
The team’s quest for a third straight title may prove to be its most hardy.
This season, the Wildcats will play in a new eight-man league within the Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC) after the Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) all but folded its eight-man offerings this offseason. The new SSAC league features 14 teams across three divisions, meaning a regular season facing almost entirely new competition.
Their first regular season game is Sept. 6 against Duval Charter.
The Wildcats enter the league relatively thin on numbers, even for eight-man, with 22 players.
Making matters tougher, projected starting tailback/fullback Sean Saccomanno suffered a broken leg in a 20-18 preseason win over Lakeside Christian on Aug. 23.
Wildcats head coach Shawn Brown acknowledged the junior’s loss to injury “is huge” for the team and “will hurt a little bit,” but noted adjustments will be made, possibly by incorporating more spread looks and quarterback designed runs.
Said coach Brown, “Hopefully some other kids step up to play running back, I think (junior running back) Adrian Leverette could play a little bit. I don’t know if he can handle 20 reps, but I think he can do it.”
A key injury to an impact player isn’t the only depth blow to the team.
The Wildcats no longer have the services of a trio of All-State performers in linebacker Dylan Price, defensive back Jullian Jennings and two-way lineman Andrew Kilfoyl; Price (99 tackles, 17 sacks in 2018) and Jennings (eight interceptions, six passes defensed) have graduated, while Kilfoyl, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound left tackle, transferred to Gaither High School for his junior season.
Because of that, the coach said the team’s “biggest test” is figuring out “who’s going to step up on the defensive side of the ball.”
One such option is Freedman, a team captain who registered 44 tackles and four sacks last season, who the coach said has stepped up as a leader this offseason.
Freedman said he wants to make the most out of his final year of high school football, with aspirations of being named All-State.
“This is my last time to make it count, so I really want to make that time worth everything,” Freedman said. “I’m just trying to get in the weight room, trying to get more strength, more agility, more endurance every day. I’m just trying to put in my work every day, encourage my teammates, because I’m going to put my all out there.”
While questions remain on defense, it’s the team’s “strong” offense that has the sixth-year Wildcats coach encouraged by the possibilities in 2019, even with the loss of Saccomanno.
In addition to the coach’s son, Jalen Brown (58 percent completion rate, 1,105 passing yards, 28 total touchdowns, seven interceptions, 672 rushing yards), back under center, the Wildcats seemingly have no shortage of pass-catching options in Leverette, senior Cole Lallanilla and juniors Caleb Yann and Tayshawn Pendleton.
Said Shawn Brown, “We got our main key players back, all of our skill positions. We lost a lot with Andrew (Kilfoyl) transferring to Gaither…but we still have our core quarterback and receivers.”
The Wildcats veteran quarterback likewise is poised about this year’s offensive unit.
“I love my group this year,” Jalen Brown said. “It’s going to be a scary sight when people see us running our full offense.”
Each pass catcher has their own strengths, Jalen Brown said, whether it be route running, elusiveness, speed, size and so on.
“I think we never really had a receiving corps who are all different and really good at what they do, which makes us really good on offense this year,” he said.
And, perhaps just as important, Jalen Brown said, is this year’s squad is more tight-knit on and off the field compared to past seasons.
“I would say this year is probably the group that’s been closest together,” Jalen Brown said.
“Before, we’ve never hung out as a team, but this year we’ve done stuff as a team. I think we have a closer bond, so that we know when we step in between the lines that we each got each other’s backs. …I think we got lucky with a great group of kids here who all like the same things, and we all get along.”
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats 2019 roster
Head coach: Shawn Brown
- Adam Zarak, junior
- Adrian Leverette, junior
- Caleb Yann, junior
- Carter Kienast, freshman
- Cole Lallanilla, senior
- Denzyl Downing, senior
- Devin Lam, junior
- Dwight Downing, junior
- Elijah Freedman, senior
- Gavin Zeng, junior
- Hunter Price, sophomore
- Ian Curry, eighth grade
- Jalen Brown, junior
- Jay Qian, senior
- Jonathan Brink, freshman
- Matthew Martin, senior
- Quinn McCormick, freshman
- Reese Reed, freshman
- Samson Brend, junior
- Sean Saccomanno, junior
- Sebastian Sosa, senior
- Tayshawn Pendleton, junior
2019 regular season schedule
- Duval Charter (Sept. 6, 7 p.m.)
- at Harvest Community (Sept. 13, 7 p.m.)
- Real Life Christian Academy (Sept. 20, 7 p.m.)
- First Baptist Christian Academy (Sept. 27, 7 p.m.)
- at Master’s Academy (Oct. 4, 4 p.m.)
- at Eastland Christian (Oct. 10, 7 p.m.)
- Lakeside Christian (Oct. 18, 7 p.m.)
Published September 4, 2019