After 12 seasons spent as the Braden River High football offensive coordinator and associate head coach under Curt Bradley, Eric Sanders' time in the spotlight has arrived.
Sanders was named the program's head coach on Jan. 26 after Bradley announced he was leaving the program to take the same position at Southeast High of Bradenton on Dec. 21.
"We have full confidence (Sanders) can take this program to the next level," Braden River Athletic Director Matt Nesser said. "He is passionate, hardworking, knowledgeable and a person of high character, (a quality) which he will instill in our program."
Under Sanders' watch, Braden River sent three quarterbacks to NCAA FBS schools: Jacob Huesman to Appalachian State, Brian Gagg to East Carolina and Shawqi Itraish to Rice. Quarterback Louis Colosimo also played at FCS-level Davidson College. The Pirates' offense produced other talented players as well, like offensive lineman Ryan Neuzil, who attended Appalachian State and is currently on the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, and running back Deshaun Fenwick, who recently finished his college career with Oregon State University, among other college-level players.
Over Sanders' 12 seasons running the offense, Braden River averaged 28.7 points per game, with seven seasons averaging more than 30 points per game.
Sanders said he will continue to call the team's offensive plays as head coach, though he might make some tweaks to the playbook after assessing the team's roster and talking with the rest of his staff, which is still being compiled. Sanders said he's looking for coaches who are looking to build relationships with their players first and foremost.
The second-most important quality he's seeking?
"Knowledge of the game of football, inside and out," Sanders said. "But they have to truly care — not just about winning, but about developing the kids."
Sanders said he learned the importance of a good staff, and school administration, from Bradley, who knew he could not bring Braden River from the doldrums to a state championship contender by himself. He needed help, and he needed those helping to be 100% committed, Sanders said. That is what made the Pirates successful. Under Bradley — who called the team's defense — and Sanders' watch, the Pirates went 83-45 and made the playoffs nine times, winning two district titles and a regional title in 2015, when the program reached the state semifinals before losing 27-10 to eventual state champion St. Thomas Aquinas.
Sanders said he wants his 2024 staff to be just as cohesive as Bradley's were.
Bradley's departure came as a surprise, Sanders said, but he understood that Bradley saw an opportunity to do for Southeast what he did for Braden River, which is take a program in need and turn it into something special.
Southeast went 0-10 in 2023 and 1-8 in 2022. At the same time, Sanders said, Bradley leaving created an opportunity of its own, one that — after 12 years in a prominent but secondary role — Sanders could not afford to miss. Sanders threw his name into the mix and was overjoyed when he heard the job was his, Sanders said.
Though he's still getting settled in the head coach role, Sanders said he has begun thinking about his players and the 2024 season. The Pirates finished 5-5 in 2023, though four of the five losses were by eight points or less. All five losses came on the road.
Several Pirates players eligible to return in 2024 have shown promise. Junior Yahshua Edwards ran for 967 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns while catching 37 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Marcus Galloway, splitting time with Edwards, had 134 carries for 627 yards and three touchdowns. The offense was led by junior quarterback Lucas Despot, who threw for 1,619 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
On defense, Pirates sophomore Ronin Dangler led the team in tackles (94) and tackles for loss (19) and was second in sacks (5.0) behind sophomore teammate Myles Holmen (5.5).
"I think our players are looking forward to the challenge," Sanders said. "They are a tight-knit group. There are a lot of close friends on the team. I've got a good core here. There has been excitement all around."
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.