When Cypress Creek Middle/High School (CCH) head coach Mike Johnson looks out across the field during a typical practice these days, he can’t help but harken back to just three years ago.
Then, he had little more than a handful of kids show up for his first practice. Now, he sees more than 50.
“It’s amazing,” says Johnson, who is 3-17 in two seasons at the helm of the Coyotes. “I think this is a year we can definitely break out of that ‘You’re a first-year program’ image. We are ready to turn that corner and start climbing that mountain to run with all these other teams.”
Here’s how the Coyotes, who open their season tonight at Wesley Chapel at 7:30 p.m., are looking for Year 3:
QUARTERBACK: Jehlani Warren is the old man at quarterback this season — the senior is the only QB among Wesley Chapel’s three high school football teams that already has had any varsity starts entering 2019. Last year, Warren was 81-for-142 passing (57 percent) for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns. This year, Johnson expects him to better those numbers.
“He had a decent year,” Johnson says, “and I think he’s really ready to (break out).”
Junior Justin Lavine and sophomore Owen Walls will provide depth under center.
RUNNING BACK: Senior Jovanni Anderson (156 yards, 2 TDs) is the top returning rusher and will start. His ground-and-pound style will be complemented by sophomore scatback Andrew Burgess (photo), and junior Issac Walker is a combination of both styles.
WIDE RECEIVER: Explosive senior Jalen Warren, Jehlani’s twin brother, returns after leading the team with 32 catches, 498 yards and six touchdowns last season. The Coyotes may have graduated four players who combined for nearly 1,000 receiving yards last season, but sophomores Dontrell Clerkley and Merrick Simmons are expected to replace those stats this season. Junior Brycen Hernandez will slide into the slot after playing fullback last season, and junior Colin Ostapchuk will contribute there as well. “It’s a deep group,” Johnson says.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Senior Kyle Cantwell (6-3, 250) can start at either tackle position and will anchor the line. Junior Paul-andre Tre’ also is a versatile tackle. Junior Jake DiMarco is the starting center, and seniors Kyle Florey and Noah Smith “have come a long way,” according to Johnson, and will start at guard, with junior Matt Lodge pressing hard for one of those spots as well.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Cantwell will start at tackle, and Hernandez and senior Brody Gommier will be the starters at defensive end, but Johnson’s hope is that he won’t have to play his offensive line starters too much on the other side of the ball.
LINEBACKERS: Jalen Warren and Addison will be the starters at outside linebacker, and are coming off a season in which the duo finished 1-2 in tackles (77 and 73 respectively) for the Coyotes. Nine of Warren’s tackles were for a loss of yardage. Sophomore David Willins has earned one of the middle linebacker jobs, along with senior Sebastian Bramonte. Defensively, Johnson says his unit is coming together and playing faster and reacting this season instead of overthinking their assignments.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Simmons, Clerkley, Jehlani Warren, Ostapchuk Walker and junior Jonathan Garcia can all play defensive back, and Burgess and Clerkley will split duties at safety.
KICKER: Senior Trace Wolden and junior Colton Corrao will handle the kicking duties.
THE FINAL WORD: The Coyotes graduated many of their playmakers, so guys like the Warren brothers and Burgess will play have to play bigger roles on both sides of the ball. Johnson isn’t ruling out a playoff berth, but a more realistic goal might be a .500 season, even though the Coyotes’ schedule only includes two teams (Wesley Chapel and Mitchell) that won more than four games last season and six opponents that won three or fewer.