For many area coaches, preseason games give them an opportunity to see how much progress their teams made during training camp.
The games might not mean anything in terms of wins and losses, but this week’s slate of kickoff classics are far from meaningless.
For many area coaches, the preseason games give them an opportunity to see how much progress their teams made during training camp and for the players, it represents a final chance to earn a spot on the varsity roster.
Nearly every area team will play in a Kickoff Classic, the only exception being First Academy of Leesburg, which chose to sit out the game and continue with its preseason practices. The Villages, last season’s winningest team in Lake and Sumter counties with an 11-1 record, will be the first in the area to see action when the Buffalo host Pierson Taylor at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Richard Pettus, entering his 17th year on the Buffalo sidelines, is the only head football coach in the school’s history. He will take a 92-65 record into the regular season and buoyed by success of the 2018 season — the most successful in school history — which ended with a heartbreaking 43-41 loss to Dunnellon in the Class 4A regional finals.
“It’s an additional practice for us,” Pettus said of the Kickoff Classic. “We get an opportunity to work some of the kinks out before our regular-season opener (at Ocala Lake Weir) next week against a live opponent and find out what works and what doesn’t. It’s also a chance to get our kids on film and get a good look at some of our younger players.
“There are still some jobs to be won and this game could decide who starts and who doesn’t next week, as well as who stays with the varsity and who will start the year with the junior varsity.”
Pettus said he’s unsure how long he will stick with his starters before shuttling in younger players. A lot, he said, will depend on how the Wildcats approach the game.
“We’ll take things one series at a time,” he said.
Like Pettus, first year Umatilla coach Charlie Cerney plans to use the Bulldogs’ game on Friday against Eustis as a measuring stick. Since taking over the job in January, Cerney has worked to instill confidence in his players.
He felt a solid foundation for the future was laid in Umatilla’s spring jamboree against Tavares and Mount Dora, and he hopes to see his team take the next step. Umatilla has not won a regular season game in nearly two years — the Bulldogs’ last win came Aug. 25, 2017 — but, even still, Cerney doesn’t consider a victory on Friday to be the primary objective.
“I want to see improvement,” Cerney said. “Certainly a win would be nice, but I want our kids to walk away from (Friday’s game) believing in themselves and feeling positive about all the work they’ve put in so far. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years and we want to help them restore pride in Umatilla football.”
Cerney said varsity players will play the first three quarters against the Panthers and the junior varsity will play the fourth. He plans to dress 24 players for the varsity portion of the game, but expects that number to grow before next week’s season opener at home against Brooksville Central.
While all coaches understand the meaning and purpose of kickoff classics, some place more importance in winning.
At Leesburg, which has won only five of its last 20 games and finished with a 1-9 record in 2018, head coach Mark Oates said he is playing for the win in Friday’s home game against Ocala West Port. Plus, because the Yellow Jackets do not open their regular season until Aug. 30 when they travel to Deltona Pine Ridge, Oates wants his players to relish a victory rather than languishing over a loss during their bye week.
“It’s really important, I think, for our guys to enjoy as much early success as they can,” Oates said. “We want to build up their level of confidence. Of course, we’ll do a lot of what all coaching staffs do — play as many players as possible and get everyone on film so we can evaluate them — but we are playing to win. That’s the mindset we’ve tried to teach — win every time we step on the field — and we’re not changing that, even if this is just the preseason.
“We want to win this game.”