Those leaders include the Pirates' NCAA Division I-bound quarterback.
When the Braden River High football team ended the 2019 season playing its best football, taking No. 1 seed Palmetto to the brink in the first round of the playoffs, Coach Curt Bradley was hoping the team's momentum would carry into spring football and subsequently the 2020 season.
It didn't work out like Bradley hoped.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled spring football, sentencing players to approximately nine months between official practices. That momentum from last season is gone, although Bradley said the experience his young players gained is still valuable. This year, the Pirates have a senior-laden squad with 24 such players. Bradley said he will lean on all 24 of them to lead the others and get the team back to its winning ways.
It starts at quarterback, where senior Shawqi Itraish, a Rice University commit, will run the Pirates' potent passing attack. Itraish said it did not take him long to get readjusted to life under center once practices started.
"Our receiving corps and our running backs, they've made a lot of progress recently," Itraish said. "We've learned a lot (together). Everyone's working. I expect everyone to be good this season. Having that trust in everyone helps a lot (as a quarterback). I have played with these guys for years now. We're on the same page. We know which routes to run depending on how the cornerbacks line up. Our timing is good. All of that helps the offense a lot."
Itraish threw for 2,525 yards and 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions in 2019. Though the Pirates lose leading receiver Robbie Goecker to graduation, Itraish will still have plenty of firepower to use, including senior receiver Josh Thomas, who caught 37 passes for 707 yards and is especially adept as a deep-ball threat. Itriash also named seniors Carson Goda and Connor Losada, plus junior Bryan Kearse, as trusted pass-catchers.
On the ground, junior Lavontae Youmans and senior Jaheim Hodo should split carries. The duo combined for 888 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019.
Defensively, the Pirates return a stout secondary that includes senior cornerbacks Jojo Carter and Gregory Cotton. Braden River does lose its top-two tacklers from last season — linebackers Luke Reeves and Noah Font — to graduation, but returns seniors Shane Moran and Justin Shofter.
One thing Bradley said he has always tried to accomplish is fostering a sense of togetherness. In that regard, he's happy with what he sees.
"We always built this thing as a family, you know?" Bradley said. "A few years went by where, whatever the reason being, it kind of got away from that. I think we're back there now. We have a group of kids that grew up together and played together. The senior class, they're extremely tight. That really means something to them."
The Pirates season will begin Sept. 18 with a road game against Charlotte High before the team's home opener on Sept. 25 against Lakewood High (St. Petersburg). Bradley knows this season will be different, but he and his staff are trying to make it the best experience they can.
"For our seniors, this is their last chance to go at it," Bradley said. "For those guys, we want them to have this opportunity. It's really good for them to be back out here, to be around their friends and to have some sense of normalcy when everything else seems abnormal. I think as a coaching staff we've made the determination that whatever it takes from a sacrifice standpoint on our end, as far as how many times we have to use the the sanitizing sprayer or whatever we have to do to give these young men a great experiences, we're all into. We're going to do it."