Justin Austin would do anything to avoid contact — even if that meant forgoing football entirely.
But at 8 years old, giving up simply wasn’t an option. Austin grew up in a football family, and when his father told him he was going to play football, the future Sarasota High running back strapped on his helmet and took it all in stride.
Austin didn’t particularly enjoy football early on, but he quickly realized his feet were his two biggest assets.
“I was afraid of contact,” Austin says. “I just liked to run. I didn’t like the banging. My speed helped me a lot, though, because a lot of the guys were bigger and slower, so it was easier for me.”
By middle school, Austin, who was facing difficult family circumstances off the field, turned to football as a means of escape. In doing so, Austin found a passion for the sport that at one time was intimidating.
“It helped me release my anger and balance out life,” Austin says.
Last season Austin transferred to Sarasota, where he starred in the Sailors’ backfield and rushed for 1,200 yards on the ground.
“It means a lot,” Austin says of playing for Sarasota. “I had kind of a rough start to my first high school career, and I’m just blessed to be able to showcase my talents. I want people to know that I really am talented and be able to show what I can do. I’m really excited for next week.”
As a junior, Austin helped lead the Sailors to their first district title since 2006. Now, as a senior, Austin is poised to build off of last season’s success and lead by example on the field.
Austin has high expectations for this season, which include rushing for 2,000 yards and breaking the school’s all-time record for most points scored in a single game — 36, set by Antwan Graham in 2005.
But more than the individual accolades, Austin, who has aspirations of continuing his football career at the collegiate level, is focused on uniting with his teammates and leaving a mark on a program that wants to stay atop the district standings.
“I’m more confident this year because I developed that bond my first year,” Austin says. “It’s been really good, and I think we’re going to (expand) on what we built last year. I just want to help bring the team along, so it (can continue to be successful) even after my time.
“I would love to keep playing,” Austin says. “Football really means a lot to me. It’s something I love doing. Every time I suit up and put my helmet on, it helps me focus and lets me release the pressures (of life).”
By The Numbers
2006 - The last year the Sailors had won a district championship before defeating Lakewood Ranch 41-14 to win the 7A-10 title last season.
3 - The number of district games Sarasota won last season.
44.5 - The average number of points the Sailors allowed in their six losses last season.
118 - The number of points Sarasota scored in its final three district games of the 2013 season.
Brian Ryals, first year
What are your initial thoughts on this year’s team?
There’s a lot of excitement about this year’s team and the program itself. As coaches and players, there are a lot of unknowns but in a good way. I’m excited about what this team can do. It’s a different dynamic. We have a couple of seniors who have experience and can help us develop those with little to no experience. Hopefully if we plug them in the right way then very good things can happen.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you give your players heading into a new season?
Let’s not be complacent and feel that we’ve arrived. We have to be focused on and have an incredible hunger for more. Let’s aspire for more, take another step forward toward our goals. That has to be your mindset, and you have to have the attitude that you can’t settle and be happy with what you accomplished and the highs of last year. That should only motivate you to do more.
What would you say is the strength of this year’s team?
We have (a number) of returning senior guys coming off a season, albeit a season that had a tough ending at 5-6, where they accomplished a lot. They won a district title and got a taste of what it’s like to win some type of championship. We believe that’s something to build on and hopefully we can keep going in that direction.
What’s the one area that still needs improvement?
Our youth. We have a lot of young players who have never tasted varsity, let alone JV, and are going to have to come in and contribute early. When you catapult to the varsity team, there’s an increase in the speed and size of the game, the expectations given and what we’re asking them to do. When you combine that with the makeup of having a new coach, it’s an accelerated period for everyone.
Class 7A-District 10
Aug. 29 vs. Booker
Sept. 5 vs. Bayshore (7 p.m.)
Sept. 12 at Tallahassee Lincoln (7 p.m.)
Sept. 19 at Manatee
Sept. 26 BYE
Oct. 2 vs. Braden River*
Oct. 10 at Venice
Oct. 17 vs. North Port*
Oct. 24 vs. Palmetto*
Oct. 31 at Lakewood Ranch*
Nov. 7 vs. Riverview
*Denotes district game
**All games start at 7:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted
Brian Ryals was perfectly content working behind the scenes. He spent the past three seasons as Sarasota High’s offensive coordinator, offering his support to players and coaches and assisting wherever possible.
But when former head coach Ed Volz announced he would be stepping down following the 2013 season, the players began showing their support for Ryals to take over.
Ryals became the Sailors’ head coach in December, and since then he’s been building off the excitement of last season’s district championship.
“It’s not about me,” Ryals says. “It’s about these young men. I never desired nor aspired to be a head coach. It started with the kids. That’s where the idea developed (for me to be a head coach).”
The transition has been smooth for Ryals, who will remain Sarasota’s offensive coordinator. For him, it’s more about developing and strengthening his players as people rather than the number of wins and losses.
“My (philosophy) hasn’t changed,” Ryals says. “I’m still about teaching young men how to grow by developing their character, integrity and love for one another.”
Ryals graduated from Booker High, where he played wide receiver and defensive back while also handling the kicking duties and served as a backup quarterback. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryals returned to Booker in 1996 and began coaching the Tornadoes in 2010 before moving to Sarasota the following season.
“I’m still learning,” Ryals says. “I enjoyed my experience (at Booker). I had a tremendous time (shaping) young men’s (lives). When I came here, the faculty and staff support at this high school has been second to none.”
Contact Jen Blanco at email@example.com.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
5 - Justin Austin, senior, running back
32 - David Anderson, senior, linebacker
15 - Jacari Dunbar, senior, linebacker
1 - Tavon Poag, senior, safety
Click here to view the Sarasota High School 2014 roster.
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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