BRADENTON — The Braden River High football team has a new identity.
The Pirates aren’t the same team they were a season ago.
They are stronger.
They are faster.
And, most importantly, they are perfect.
Two games into the season, Braden River already has surpassed its win total from a season ago.
To some, it may not seem like a lot.
But, for a team that was outscored 329-62 en route to a 1-9 season a year ago, the turnaround is monumental.
The Pirates spent the entire summer in the weight room focusing on improving their strength and conditioning in the hopes of competing alongside some of the top teams in the area.
Braden River faced its first true test Sept. 13 when the Pirates traveled to Southeast for the first time since 2010.
Relying on its defense, which forced six turnovers, Braden River walked away with a 31-14 victory — its first victory in the series.
“Our kids had an opportunity to do something this week that’s never been done, and they stepped up to the plate,” coach Curt Bradley says. “They took advantage of it and experienced something great because of it.
“We haven’t been able to impose our will on anyone since I’ve been here, and we were kind of able to do that (Friday night),” Bradley says. “We kind of wore them out.”
For the first time in more than a year, the Pirates are finding success on both sides of the ball. Braden River has forced 11 turnovers in two games this season. Last week, the Pirates had three interceptions and also forced three fumbles, which resulted in 21 of their 31 points.
“Our kids just fight,” Bradley says. “That’s all they’ve known how to do. They just fight, and that’s all you can ask for. I’m so proud of them.”
Last season, the Pirates struggled to get off the field. Now the Pirates are creating opportunities of their own rather than letting their opponents determine their fate.
“Our defense this year will never give up,” senior linebacker Marcus Balliette says. “Last year, seven points down we might’ve quit, but this year we just kept grinding it out. Turnovers are the biggest part of defense.
“We’re starting a new era for this team,” Balliette says.
Now, Braden River is busy preparing for its first district test of the season, and it couldn’t come at a more perfect time. But, the Pirates, who failed to win a district game last fall, know there are no guarantees, especially when Lakewood Ranch comes to town.
The Pirates will host the Mustangs in their first of four district contests. Lakewood beat Braden River 21-7 last season, but this season the stakes are different. The East County’s biggest rivalry is no longer simply about bragging rights. Braden River and Lakewood find themselves in the same district for the first time.
Braden River is a perfect 2-0 while Lakewood is 1-2 after suffering back-to-back losses. Although, records don’t necessarily carry a whole lot of weight when these two teams meet.
When it comes to rivalries, it’s all about passion, intensity and being in the right place at the right time — something the Pirates are experiencing for the first time in more than a year.
“Momentum is a good thing,” Bradley says. “We’re healthy. We get to go home with some momentum and hopefully have a good fan-base turnout next week. It’s districts. This is where we’ve got to be, and, hopefully, we’re building this thing in the right direction.”