In 2022, things can only go up for The Out-of-Door Academy football team.
Everything went wrong for ODA in 2021 under Head Coach Jon Haskins, who lasted just one season. The Thunder suffered numerous injuries to its offensive line, which forced the team to cancel multiple games. In the five ODA did play, it went 0-5 and was outscored 130-27.
Enter Rob Hollway, a coach with a history of past success. Hollway, a former player at the University of Wyoming, earned the 2016 Independent Football Coach of the Year award from the Florida Athletic Coaches Association after leading All Saints' Academy to its first-ever Sunshine State Athletic Conference state championship win, 25-16 over Canterbury High.
When Hollway was hired at ODA in March, he said he wanted to end the cycle of instability that has plagued the program, which has now had four head coaches in four years.
Hollway is aware of the issues ODA had with linemen in 2021 and is taking steps to make sure the team is prepared in case it gets hit with another rash of injuries.
"Injuries are always a concern," Hollway said. "Things can change quickly that way, especially at a small independent school. But we have eight offensive linemen we feel good about so we have some depth.
"We can slide people in if we need to do that. We are also able to protect them a little bit by not playing them on the defensive line. And we're going into the season 100% healthy, which is great."
ODA's linemen have ideal size, too, particularly junior guard Blaine Bentley, who is 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, and brothers Chase Polivchak, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound sophomore, and Max Polivchak, a 6-foot-2, 295-pound freshman.
Assuming all three players stay healthy, the Thunder could have not only a competent offensive line, but a dominant one. Not many SSAC schools have similar size.
The Thunder roster as a whole is growing as well. ODA will enter the season with 36 players on its varsity roster, a number Hollway said is a good starting point for his first year. It's a number that has been boosted since the team's spring practices because seven of the school's baseball players decided to play football as well.
Hollway likes the winning culture the baseball players have brought into the locker room. The Thunder baseball team won a state title in 2021 and reached the state semifinals in 2022. Hollway said knowing how to win is a skill best learned by watching and listening to people who have done it before.
Senior pitcher/infielder Jack Hobson will be the team's quarterback after initially joining the program midway through the 2021 season and seeing a bit of game action. Senior catcher Luca Marino will be the team's middle linebacker after doing the same. The team has also recruited players from other sports — junior Tyler Beck, who reached the state track and field meet as a pole vaulter in 2021, is the team's starting defensive end.
"I'm a big believer in playing multiple sports," Hollway said. "While I was playing (high school) football, I was playing hockey in the winter, and then I tried shot put in the spring. I enjoyed each of those sport seasons a lot. I think exposure to different things helps students develop. We're trying to create a holistic environment at ODA, not just with sports but with academics and the arts."
Hollway said making sure his players have fun has been a focus. If there's no fun, Hollway said, the players aren't going to get anything good out of the experience. In Hollway's view, he's coaching to share life lessons as much as he is to win games, and treating his players well is a part of that effort. He's made changes, like playing music during workouts and practices.
It seems to be working. Marino said the players are enjoying themselves.
"Every practice is high energy," Marino said. "It's not just boring old drills all the time. We're hitting. We're playing seven-on-seven. It's a well-run practice."
One preseason game is not always an indication of how a team's season will go, but Hollway and his team got off to the best possible start Aug. 20 when traveled to play Keswick Christian in the Kickoff Classic and won 49-0. The Thunder kept things vanilla, calling 30 running plays to just three passing plays, and managed to churn out 334 total yards. Senior running back Griffin DeRusso, a transfer from Berean Christian in Brentwood, California, ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Jack Meyers ran for 84 yards and a touchdown, and added a pick six on defense from his outside linebacker spot. Beck, in first real football action, recorded 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss.
Since ODA plays in the SSAC, it is difficult to predict which games on the schedule will be the most difficult. At smaller schools, graduating one player can make a world of difference. That said, the team's annual game against rival Saint Stephen's Episcopal is always a tough task. In every other game, it appears the Thunder has a shot, especially after its Kickoff Classic effort against a team that went 4-5 in the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2021.
The players are optimistic.
"The last couple years have been ugly," Hobson said. "We're going to change that. We have a different mindset."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.