Leesburg struggled to a 1-9 season a year ago and faces a tough schedule this year, including a game in Washington, D.C.

Mark Oates is going back to his roots.

The third-year football coach at Leesburg High School learned the game as a player and a young assistant coach in programs that stressed physical, run-oriented philosophies.

And if the Yellow Jackets are going to be successful in 2019, they’ll do it by being tougher than their opponents.

“This is the most invested of the three groups I’ve had here at Leesburg,” Oates said. “They’re buying in to what we’re doing and they want to be the group that returns Leesburg football to prominence. They’ve had excellent turnout during our offseason conditioning trying to get stronger and more physical.

“Our goal is to be more physical and I think we showed that against South Sumter in the spring. We moved the ball pretty well against them and if we can do that against a team like South Sumter, we should be able to do that against a lot of teams on our schedule.

“We’ve simplified the offense and we’re going to play harder than ever before.”

For many, Leesburg has nowhere to go but up after last season’s 1-9 campaign. The Yellow Jackets struggled on both sides of the football, averaging only 13 points per game on offense and surrendering 45.7 points per contest.

Oates is hoping to lean on his four senior captains for on-field leadership when times get tough. The quartet of starting quarterback Harrison Dicus, defensive back Deion Mensah, halfback Isaiah Byrd and lineman Dylan Black — all veterans from last season — have shown the ability to lead by example in the spring and summer and Oates said they have the respect of their teammates.

That leadership likely will come in handy when the Yellow Jackets get into the meat of their schedule, a grueling three-week stretch that begins at home against Orlando Jones on Sept. 27 and includes back-to-back road games, culminating with powerhouse with Orlando Bishop Moore on Oct. 11.

Sandwiched between those two Class 5A-District 7 contests, will be a trip to Washington, D.C., to play Gonzaga College High School, coached by Randy Trivers, USA Today National Coach of the Year in 2018 and Leesburg coach from 2010 through 2013. At Leesburg, Trivers led the Yellow Jackets to a 28-16 record and two postseason appearances, including a district championship in 2013 — the school’s first since 1969.

“Once the game with Gonzaga became possible, we had to make some changes to the schedule,” Oates said. “And when everything came together, we wound up with those three games in successive weeks. It’ll certainly be tough, but I think that’s when we’ll see all the conditioning and strength work we’ve put in over the summer pay off. We might not be as deep as some teams we play, but we are going to be in shape.”

Oates said Leesburg will start the season with “about 35” players on the varsity roster. He’d rather have more players available; “I’d like to get up to 40 or 45,” but he likes what he sees.

“The players we have want to be here for all the right reasons,” Oates said.

Keys for Leesburg will be to stay healthy, particularly on the offensive line, and how it handles adversity.

“We can’t afford to have guys up front missing games,” Oates said. “We have a lot of quality on the offensive line, but not much depth. It is also important that we fight through tough times and not point fingers.”

It’s also personal for Oates.

“I feel like I’m coaching my team now,” Oates said. “A lot of these kids have been here for my two previous seasons and they want to be here. They have the talent to contribute and they’ve done what we ask.

“I really believe we’re in a good place right now.”

KEY PLAYERS

Harrison Dicus, quarterback; Isaiah Byrd, halfback; Dylan Black, lineman; Deion Mensah, defensive back

KEY GAMES

Sept. 6, at Wildwood

In the past, this was one of the area’s top basketball games every year.

Oct. 4, at Washington, D.C. Gonzaga

The Yellow Jackets become the first Lake County team in memory to travel out of state for a regular-season game.

Nov. 1, Lake Minneola

Leesburg coach Mark Oates and Lake Minneola coach Walter Banks, longtime friends, renew their annual rivalry.