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In high school football there is often a clear line between the haves and the haves, but that doesn’t explain why some teams struggle and others get on to great things.
Some programs – such as Venice, Charlotte and, for many years, Port Charlotte – regularly win games, travel to the playoffs, and send several players to college football.
Others like Lemon Bay, DeSoto County, and North Port have had fleeting success but have not been able to hold onto it in the long run.
It may seem obvious what makes the big programs different from the recovery programs, but it is less certain that the local hierarchy will change anytime soon.
There are several components to a successful football program, but these can be essentially broken down into three main variables.
From professional sports down to high school level, constancy at the top is important.
Check out some of the most successful teams in sports history – Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots and Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers, Nick Saban and Bear Bryant with the Alabama Crimson Tide, Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, and Geno Auriemma with the UConn – Women’s basketball, among other things – and it’s not hard to see that winning and reliable leadership go hand in hand.
At the local level, the most successful programs reflect this commitment to coaching, while in other programs in the region, coaches come and go.
Lemon Bay coach Don Southwell enters his fifth season at the helm – his 19th year overall with the Mantas – while DeSoto County coach and sporting director Sam Holland enters his first and North Port is still looking for his next boss.
Venice High – a two-time national champion with several former players in Division I football – has had both coach John Peacock and sporting director Pete Dombroski as part of the program for over 20 years.
“Part of it is that I’ve been in the same place for 22 years,” said Peacock of his success in raising scholarship offers for his Division I players. “When you’ve been in the same place for that long, college coaches know where you are and know who is there and have your contact (information). So these guys have had my number for over 20 years.
“Take a look around the area. How many coaches in the area have been here for five years? “
Charlotte High, while not winning a state title, has gotten close a couple of times and has had alumni successes similar to those of the Indians.
The school had only two sporting directors – Wally Keller and Brian Nolan – for the past 39 years, and until Wade Taylor’s promotion to head coach last season, this millennium had a coach in Binky Waldrop.
“You don’t build anything (without consistency),” said Waldrop. “Another important factor in all of this is that you have to have an administration that understands the importance of having a great football program. Everything was geared towards making us successful. We all had our kids on weightlifting classes. We had good facilities. “
It’s difficult to create a culture of success and keep coaches on if they don’t have the proper support – from their own administrations and the community at large.
In most cases, it doesn’t take long to find out how much support a program has. Anyone entering the Venice and Charlotte football stadiums is greeted with an impressive entrance, full grandstands on either side, tons of athletes in new uniforms, and a large video display.
But it’s not just money that keeps these programs afloat.
The Indian coaching staff includes two former NFL players, Larry Shannon and Mike Jones Sr., as well as several other assistants who have been there for nearly a decade or more.
While the Tarpons have a new head coach, Taylor has been on the program since his playing days and also has a few assistants, including Justin Midgett who also played for the Tarpons.
Fostering this support for newer schools – like North Port and Lemon Bay – takes time.
“Obviously, both programs have had tremendous success and both have been an integral part of the community for a very long time,” said North Port Sporting Director Tony Miller of Venice and Charlotte. “They have a great presence of community support among their alumni. The goal is to build that kind of culture here in North Port.
“Most of the people who live in our community are not graduates from our school. The culture in these schools is certainly something that we would like to replicate. “
Port Charlotte was an example of how quickly things can change when former players come back and invest in the program.
Head coach Jordan Ingman, who played for the Port Charlotte Pop Warner team – the Bandits – and then for the Pirates, returned to lead the team immediately after completing his playing career at Wofford College.
“When I was a player here, we only won nine games in three years on the varsity program,” said Ingman, who graduated from Port Charlotte High in 2007. “We never went to the playoffs. We never had a winning season. It’s been a challenging couple of years as a player.
“I think the off-season was the biggest factor (in changing the program). When I was a player I had very few teammates, around 7-10 of us, who trained all year. This year we had trained 62 players all year round. When I was a player there wasn’t a lot of engagement. “
For teams like Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay, and DeSoto Counties – smaller communities in the area – it’s especially difficult to avoid the cyclical nature of high school sports. With few athletes coming out each year, every team needs to make the most of what they have.
That has finally paid off for the pirates. Port Charlotte will start its tenth straight season with its quarterback – Bryce Eaton this year – as a former Bandits player.
“I know we have a lot of alumni on the staff who are a big reason (for the turnaround in Port Charlotte),” said Ingman. “I work with a great group of people and we’ve all been together for 10 years now. That made a huge contribution.
“But not because of Jordan Ingman. That’s because the players committed to it. We tried that early on. When I took office I was 22 and we only had four or five coaches. Nobody wanted to train with a 22 year old. It was a big challenge. Now we have 16 coaches and these guys are the reason why we have held out as one of the smaller schools in our classification over the past few years. “
It is impossible to create a culture of success without persistence and support, but once achieved it is one of the most influential traits a program can have.
Once the reputation is established – winning, getting exposure, playing top level competitions, and sending athletes to top college programs – everything else becomes a lot easier.
In this modern age where athletes move easily from school to school in search of a new opportunity, a tradition of excellence is hard to ignore.
Venice was the prime example of capitalizing on one’s own success – when five of the team’s last six quarterbacks began their careers at another school.
“Children do not change from good programs,” said Waldrop. “I know (Trainer John) Peacock gets beaten up a lot and accused of many things, but kids want to play there. You have a good program.
“They have great facilities. They work hard. They do everything they have to to make kids want to go there. Children go where they think they can play and where they want to play. “
In recent years, several players from North Port, Lemon Bay, DeSoto County, and even Port Charlotte have moved to either Venice or Charlotte while few have left the Indians or Tarpons.
But while top programs flourish with new talent, the others are hit twice by the losses – they take a key player from their own team and add them to a future rival.
“We’re a small community,” said Southwell. “I don’t want to go too far, but we basically just play with kids from our community.
“Of course people move in and people move out, but historically when you watch football everywhere, especially in the state of Florida, small towns tend to have a cycle because you’re not a college program where you can recruit a perfect team each year.”
But while some programs like Lemon Bay and Port Charlotte were able to maximize their communities’ output, others like North Port and DeSoto Counties struggled to do the same.
“In a small town, talent goes up and down,” said Holland. “It always comes back. It is only a matter of time before this area is back where it needs to be. “
The Bobcats had never had a winning season in their 20-year history, and the Bulldogs had lost in four of the past six years – including a 2020 0-11 season in which the team had too few players to end the year.
“Port Charlotte is close by,” Waldrop said of the pirates who reached the level of Venice and Charlotte. “In some other places, however, I don’t know if that will ever happen.”