Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
Michael Cucci couldn't remember what winning felt like.
It had been more than 18 months — Sept. 28, 2017 — since the Lakewood Ranch High football walked off the field a victor. So even though it was just a spring game on May 16, the Mustangs 35-30 victory over host Lecanto High meant something.
Actually, it meant everything to Cucci, a rising senior wide receiver, and the rest of his teammates. They were reminded just how much they missed that sweet taste of victory, and how much it could inspire a program not used to it.
"It brought some excitement," Cucci said of the spring victory. "It's good to see, and we're getting along. We have energy. Everyone is having fun now."
Going 0-10, as the Mustangs did in 2018, will kill the fun.
Now, as preseason practice has begun (as of July 29), Lakewood Ranch has a proven coach in Rashad West, and its players have hope.
I can understand why that is so big. The Mustangs scored 42 points total last season. The 35 they scored against Lecanto might as well have been 100. Cucci said that instant jolt came largely from the energy supplied by West and his coaching staff. The players feel the coaches, who blare music during practices, generally seem more engaged with the program than what they encountered last year. Cucci said he thinks that will translate to success.
"Last year, we did not have a lot of teamwork," Cucci said. "Everyone was doubting each other and fighting with each other. We have to stick together this year. As long as we do that, I think we'll have a great season."
West will move away from previous coach Christopher Culton’s triple option attack and toward a spread offense, putting more of an emphasis on the passing game and getting more athletes the ball. But the coaches are still working out the exact schemes. West said he will tailor the offense to the players he has available, and starting position battles are ongoing.
Roles may not be settled until the team’s regular season opener at Ida Baker High on Aug. 23. What is not in flux is the new regime’s dedication to adding muscle.
Austin Morris, a rising senior defensive back, has been the benefactor of such change. It was not as much the workouts the team is doing now, but the mindset.
“Last year, guys would just go through the motions in the weight room,” Morris said. “This year, it has been treated as a priority. We are focused on getting stronger.”
It is a refrain West has drilled into their heads. Morris used himself as an example. He’s currently squatting between 285-295 pounds (and not satisfied with that), which is an increase of approximately 50 pounds from this time last year.
“They have learned how to work at the clip we want them to work,” West said at a youth camp. “They are learning the dedication it takes to be good.”
There are a lot of unknowns remaining with the Mustangs. Winning a spring game — against a team that was 3-7 in 2018 — is one thing, but doing it against good competition is another. And while scoring 35 points is exciting, giving up 30 is a concern. As uninspiring as the offense was last season, the defense was too, allowing 34 or more points in eight of 10 games.
To that end, Morris said new defensive backs coach Cody Montgomery, who comes to the program from Braden River High, has been more detailed in his teachings, getting into the nitty-gritty of footwork, technique and positioning.
We’ll see in a few weeks how much these changes translate to on-field impact. We may be a few seasons away from Lakewood Ranch becoming a full-fledged contender, but the program believes in itself, and that’s the first step.
“The right coaching can change everything,” Morris said. “We are definitely capable of winning, and I think we will. We still have to execute and follow our assignments. We have to work hard and we cannot give up.”