EAST COUNTY — It’s been nearly a month since football practice resumed in East Manatee, and on Friday Braden River, Lakewood Ranch and The Out-of-Door Academy all will hit the gridiron and see how they stack up against their competition.
The Pirates and Mustangs will both hit the road, traveling to Cardinal Mooney and Sarasota respectively, while the Thunder will play host to Calvary Christian in the annual Preseason Kickoff Classic.
After coming off their best season in school history that included advancing to the second round of the playoffs, Braden River will take its first snaps toward a state championship. The Pirates will face a young Cougars team, which will be without its all-time leading rusher Steve Ierulli, who is now off at the University of North Alabama, but Braden River coach Ed Volz plans to play every down as if it’s the Pirates’ last.
“We’re going to play to win a football game,” Volz said. “We’ve worked really hard, and I want to see if we’ve improved upon the spring game — that will be the next evaluation in the step toward the regular season.”
Unlike the Pirates, the Mustangs found themselves on the opposite end of the record books, coming off their worst season in school history. But after a disappointing start, Lakewood made positive strides late in the season and has continued to improve throughout the offseason.
Lakewood will face a Sarasota team that had a disappointing season of its own last year, so both teams will be eager to redeem past success. The Mustangs will play the first half like a regular season contest before turning the ball over to some of the younger players.
“I don’t really care if we win or lose,” Lakewood coach Shawn Trent said. “We’re going to play as many people as we possibly can.”
Finally, the Thunder will face a familiar opponent in Calvary Christian. The Warriors finished two games behind ODA in the district standings a year ago, and ODA will use the game to gauge what adjustments they’ll need to make in the coming weeks.
“I just want to see if we’re able to execute what we’ve been working on since Aug. 10,” ODA coach Brett Timmons said. “I want to see if we can line up right, call the right plays and if the defense is making the right calls, flying around and making some tackles.”
ODA is set to kickoff at 7 p.m. with Braden River and Lakewood set to kickoff at 7:30 p.m.
Linebacker Trevor Barnes isn’t one to let his emotions get the best of him.
Nor is he one who likes to lose. So on those rare occasions last season when the scoreboard didn’t shine in the Pirates’ favor, the defensive signal-caller knew he had to be the one to pull his team together.
“I always try to keep a positive energy by talking a lot and keeping everybody up,” Barnes said. “I love to win and I want the team to succeed and do great. I hate to lose … I just love the feeling of winning a game.”
After watching his team struggle on the field during his first two years, Barnes took it upon himself to help revamp the defensive unit. Since then, Barnes has become one of the most dominant players in the area, finishing with 86 tackles last season to the lead the Pirates for the second consecutive season.
“I think he exemplifies a large group of kids on this team,” Volz said. “He represents hard work, commitment and dedication both on the field and in the classroom. He’s really the quarterback of the defense.”
Barnes began playing football when he was 10 years old and played offense and defense until focusing solely on defense his freshman year.
“I like linebacker more because defense is more intense,” Barnes said. “Offense was kind of boring to me. I like the energy on defense and being able to run around and make plays.”
Now in his senior year, Barnes will once again be called upon to lead a defensive unit, which limited its opponents to just 170 points last season. And after leading the Pirates to their first playoff berth, Barnes is excited to end his high school career with a bang.
“I’m looking to progress from last year and go even deeper into the playoffs,” Barnes said. “We’ve got big expectations this year.”
Lakewood Ranch High offensive lineman Austin Reiter has become all too familiar with the unknown.
As a freshman, Reiter was the lone underclassman on the Mustangs’ offensive line. And in the years that have followed, the right tackle has had to adjust to an entirely new set of starters.
“I’ve had a new family every single year,” Reiter said.
This fall, the senior will anchor the Mustangs’ offensive line, which features three sophomores and a junior who will be making their first varsity start against Sarasota High in the annual Preseason Kickoff Classic.
“We have four kids that have never started a game, so the hardest thing is to say how much better they’ve gotten,” coach Shawn Trent said. “You don’t really know how you (stack up) until you go out and hit somebody else. Really, we just want to see how they respond.”
After playing junior varsity for Lakewood last season, sophomores Shane Blair, Alec Jones and Gannon Katzenberger and junior Josh Nauman spent the offseason working on footwork and basic fundamentals while adjusting to the increased speed of the game at the varsity level.
“We’ve improved a lot,” Blair said. “We’re a lot stronger and we know the system a lot better.”
The Class 5A Sailors could prove to be a tough test for the Mustangs’ young offensive line. But although the early season contest doesn’t count toward the team’s overall record, the offensive line plans to go out full-throttle.
“We’re just going to take it like any other game,” Katzenberger said.
“It’s definitely going to help us get better,” Reiter added.
THE OUT-OF-DOOR ACADEMY
Jamie Onufrak is without a doubt the most regarded football player on The Out-of-Door Academy roster.
Perhaps it’s his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame that causes opposing offenses and defenses to take notice. Or maybe it’s his physical toughness and desire to be the best at his position that has made the senior tight end and defensive end one of East Manatee’s most recognizable players.
But there are times when even the most visible players on the field have trouble getting recognized.
Just ask Onufrak and Thunder coach Brett Timmons.
Onufrak recently verbally committed to play football for Marshall University, becoming the program’s first Division I-A athlete.
“It’s a great tight end school,” Onufrak said. “They pass a lot and their offensive revolves around the tight end, so I’m looking forward to playing tight end there.”
But Onufrak’s road to success didn’t come without a lot of hard work and an extra push from his coach.
“Jamie has natural talent, but some people’s perception is their reality,” Timmons said. “By that I mean because we’re in a smaller class people assume we don’t have quality Division I football players here at this level. So we have to do a little more self promoting and marketing to get (coaches and schools) to watch us.”
Onufrak began playing football when he was 7 years old at the urging of his parents. He grew up playing defensive end before becoming a two-way player for the Thunder last season.
After a disappointing loss in the opening round of the playoffs a year ago, Onufrak is eager to get back out onto the field and help his team resume its winning ways.
“I just want to help us win, and hopefully we’ll be able to get to the state (championship),” Onufrak said. “If I score zero touchdowns and we get to state, then I don’t care.”
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EAST COUNTY FOOTBALL SCHEDULES
All games start at 7:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted
* Denotes district game
Sept. 4: vs. Lakewood Ranch
Sept. 11: at Venice
Sept. 18: at Sarasota
Sept. 25: vs. Bayshore*
Oct. 2: vs. DeSoto
Oct. 9: at Southeast*
Oct. 16: at Manatee
Oct. 23: BYE
Oct. 30: vs. Booker*
Nov. 6: at Lemon Bay*
Nov. 13: vs. Palmetto
Sept. 4: at Braden River
Sept. 11: vs. Southeast
Sept. 17: at East Lee County High
Sept. 25: vs. Ida Baker
Oct. 2: vs. Manatee
Oct. 9: at Port Charlotte*
Oct. 16: at Bayshore
Oct. 23: vs. Charlotte*
Oct. 30: BYE
Nov. 6: at Palmetto*
Nov. 11: vs. Wauchula Hardee
THE OUT-OF-DOOR ACACEMY
Sept. 4: vs. The First Academy, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11: at Cardinal Mooney
Sept. 18: at First Baptist Academy, TBA
Sept. 25: at St. John Neumann*
Oct. 2: BYE
Oct. 9: vs. Evangelical Christian School*, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16: vs. Shorecrest Prep School, 7 p.m.
Oct. 23: vs. Bradenton Christian School*, 7 p.m.
Oct. 30: vs. Moore Haven Junior:Senior High School*, 7 p.m.
Nov. 6: at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School*, 3 p.m.
Nov. 11: vs. The Villages High School, 7 p.m.