It took longer than Sarasota High Head Coach Josh Phillips wanted or expected.
The wait did not make the Gatorade bath he received feel any less sweet.
"It was colder than I ever dreamed," Phillips said with a smile. "But it was a lot of fun. Being able to celebrate with my team and my coaching staff after what has been a hard season, it was a lot of joy."
The celebration followed the Sailors' 25-6 win over Southeast High (0-8) on Oct. 20. The victory brought Sarasota's record to 1-7.
The Sailors were tested early and often in 2023. According to the Florida High School Athletic Association's strength of schedule rating system, Sarasota's 2023 schedule carries a rating of 5.70, which is the third-toughest mark of any team in the Sailors' Region 4 of Class 4S, trailing only Venice High (7.25) and Riverview High (6.28). For a program with a first-year head coach and that lost several key players from its playoff-bound 2022 team to graduation and to transfers, it is not surprising that the Sailors struggled early.
But the Sailors never quit on the season, something that fills Phillips with pride. They got better each week in practice and managed to give teams with high hopes a scare. The Sailors hung with Manatee High (6-2) to the tune of 27-14 on Sept. 1, and forced Palmetto High (4-3) to win a 49-31 shootout. There was nothing in the win column yet, but progress was being made.
"Some officials told us things like, 'You're the best 0-6 team I've ever seen," Phillips said. "We got messages from other coaches every week about the way we competed. The public doesn't see that stuff. The public only sees your record, not the X's and O's or how you're competing or how much talent you have."
Several Sailors players noted that there was a concerted effort from the team to stay mentally focused despite the losing streak. If they were going to lose, they were going to go down fighting and playing their hardest. That's the only way it would eventually change, they said.
The game against Southeast was the breakout game everyone needed. Senior quarterback Johnny Squitieri, a transfer from Manatee who won a quarterback competition over senior Michael Bendever, threw for 245 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown to senior receiver Jackson Mullet. Senior running back Joe Ziegler ran for two touchdowns, of three and four yards respectively. The Sailors defense stopped Southeast four times on the one-yard line to prevent an early score and never looked back.
The celebration began with splashing Phillips and continued in the locker room, where senior receiver/safety Christopher Espinel played hip-hop music over the speakers and everyone let the stress of the last two months go.
"It always feels good to win, no matter what number it is," Squitieri said. "We're trying to get as many as possible now. We have a big game this week."
The Sailors will travel to the Ram Bowl to play rival Riverview High (4-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Rams have won 11-straight meetings with the Sailors, including last year's 14-0 victory, and are coming off a 21-14 road win over Manatee High (6-2). Breaking the Riverview streak will take just as much effort as breaking 2023's seven-game skid, but the Sailors believe they're up to the task.
Squitieri said the Sailors have to stick to the basics and execute the game plan at a high level; Ziegler said all 11 players on the field have to work as a unit; Senior linebacker Hayden McSwane said everyone individually has to do their jobs; senior safety Nick Wasowicz called the game a "dog fight" and predicted that whoever wants the victory more will come out on top. The common theme in all of those answers is the team acting like a team. It's what Phillips has wanted the Sailors to be since he took over.
Now that one win has come, the Sailors are hungry for more — and they're still playing for something, as unlikely as that sounds after an 0-7 start. The Sailors are ninth in Class 4S Region 4 in the latest FHSAA rankings, released Oct. 24. The top eight teams in each region make the playoffs. Lakewood Ranch High, which currently occupies the eighth spot, has a 3-5 record. If Lakewood Ranch loses out and Sarasota wins out, there's a chance the Sailors could jump the Mustangs in the rankings: Lakewood Ranch's strength of schedule, which is a factor in the rankings, is just 0.67.
For now, Phillips is happy with how his team has stuck to the plan and seen it pay dividends.
"Guys are fighting their guts out," Phillips said. "They are putting in a lot of time and effort. You want them to have that reward for their hard work. We were so close against some good football teams. It feels good to finally get it."
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.