After three consecutive losing seasons in the eight-man football ranks, Academy at the Lakes looks to make a splash in 2017, under fourth-year head coach Shawn Brown.
The Wildcats are coming off a 2-8 mark in 2016, after finishing 4-7 and 3-5 the prior two seasons.
But now — with a fruitful combination of talent, depth and experience — the Wildcats appear primed for a breakout year.
“This is the first year we have everybody coming back since I’ve been here,” Brown said, during a late April spring practice at the Lake Padgett Estates East Sports Complex.
After having no seniors in 2016, the Wildcats expect to field a dozen on the 2017 roster.
Among them is Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) All-State linebacker Danny Gonzalez, who registered 165 tackles in 2016, the highest among all Florida eight-man players.
Doubling as a tailback, the 6-foot, 205-pound team captain was also the Wildcats leading rusher (608 yards, 10 touchdowns).
And, throughout his sensational 2016 campaign, Gonzalez received some national recognition, becoming a three-time nominee for MaxPreps/USA Football Player of the Week.
His performance has drawn the attention of multiple college scouts, including Millsaps College (Jackson, Mississippi), Florida Tech University (Melbourne, Florida) and Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, Michigan).
Impressive, considering Gonzalez didn’t begin playing football until his freshman year.
Instead, he played basketball through the eighth grade.
“He has come a long way,” Brown said. “He’s just turned into a pure football player in the last four years.”
Understanding football’s nuances was foremost to his development as a player, Gonzalez said. He acknowledged he “didn’t know a single thing” about the game when he first signed up.
“I think a lot of it was just learning the game a little bit more,” Gonzalez said. “Coach Brown was always helping me at the linebacker position, just teaching me.”
Seeing Gonzalez’s triumphs have encouraged other Academy at the Lakes students give football a shot.
Currently the 2017 squad has nearly 30 players, about a dozen more than last year.
“All the other kids have come out,” Brown said, “because they see Danny didn’t play before, and he’s been successful.”
Beyond the gaudy statistics and football skillset, Gonzalez’s best quality is his work ethic, the Wildcats coach said.
“Everything he does is at 100 percent. He doesn’t take plays off,” said Brown.
That mindset, too, translates to the classroom, where Gonzalez boasts a 3.8 grade point average.
“He’s a perfectionist, so he doesn’t like to fail at anything,” Brown explained. “I think that shows in his grades. If you say we’re going to play basketball one-on-one, he’s going to do everything to beat you. If you play pool, he’s going to try to beat you. If you play chess, checkers — I think it’s that he takes everything so seriously.”
Yet, Gonzalez doesn’t figure to be the only Wildcat filling up highlight reels.
The 2017 squad features several other impact players, including senior wide-out Isaiah Smith (28 receptions, 592 yards, seven touchdowns), junior tailback/defensive back Jamaal Johnson (702 all-purpose yards) and freshman quarterback Jalen Brown, who started as an eighth grader in 2016, passing for 1,116 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
“I think we have a good group where a lot of guys can make some plays,” Shawn Brown said. “Now we have the experience, we shouldn’t have as many mistakes in games, and we should win more games.”
His star pupil concurs.
“We’re just all trying to come together as a team this year,” Gonzalez said. “We’re just working together and make sure everyone works as hard as the next guy…”
Besides shedding tackles, the Wildcats look to shed perceptions about eight-man football, where games are played on a compacted 40 by 80-yard field.
“Some people give eight-man a bad rap,” Shawn Brown said. “They’re like, ‘kids can’t get recruited,’ but I look at a guy like Danny Gonzalez. A lot of colleges will recruit (eight-man) because it’s a skill-based game.”
To Brown, “football is football,” whether it’s six-man, eight-man or the standard 11-man.
“We do everything everybody else does,” he said.
The Wildcats will wrap up spring practices on May 25 with a jamboree against other FCAPPS programs.
Published May 10, 2017