Sunshine State Athletic Conference allows teams to compete against opponents of similar size and skill
Joining the Sunshine State Athletic Conference has proved to be beneficial for three area schools.
Saint Stephen’s has gained the most from the move, winning two SSAC Florida Bowl titles and finishing runner-up twice all in the past four seasons.
Out-of-Door Academy has reached the postseason each of the past two seasons and Bradenton Christian was in the playoffs two years ago.
“We’re playing teams similar size to us and similar type schools,” Out-of-Door Academy second-year coach Chris Kempton said. “It’s a really competitive league.”
The three area schools play in the Coral League Bay Division — St. Petersburg Shorecrest dropped to a lower division and was replaced by Spring Hill Bishop McLaughlin in the four-team division.
“Bishop McLaughlin is a really physical team,” Kempton said. “Saint Stephen’s has set the standard for our league. Bradenton Christian returns a bunch of really talented players from last year’s team. Just in our division it’s going to be a really, really competitive division. And there are some really good teams in our league.”
Another benefit of being in the SSAC is that most of the teams’ rosters are comparable in numbers, usually around 30 players.
“We’re starting to get some familiarity with the teams we are playing,” Kempton said. “So that’s good.”
Here is a closer look at the three are teams.
The Falcons are younger than in years past, but have weapons on both sides of the ball.
DJ Clark tortured both area teams last year, gaining 255 yards on 23 carries against Out-of-Door Academy and an amazing 428 yards on 20 attempts and five touchdowns against Bradenton Christian. He finished the season with 1,608 yards and 21 scores.
Camden Vining and Dylan Davis are versatile two-way players: Vining at running back and receiver on offense and linebacker on defense and Davis along both lines. Calvin Sauerbeck also will see action in the backfield and at linebacker. Ty Barker (wide receiver/defensive line) and Alex Sket (lines) are also two-way players.
“The strength is in our leadership,” Saint Stephen’s coach Tod Creneti said.
The Falcons will have some key newcomers, led by Dylan Zervos at quarterback.
“We are younger which presents an exciting opportunity,” Creneti said. “You can worry about being young or see the excitement in being young. We see a lot of excitement in our young guys. We’re confident they are going to step up and play well.”
Creneti is not looking ahead to a fifth straight appearance in the Florida Bowl, instead, he’s just going through the process of the season.
“This team works together very well,” he said. “They like each other. They push each other. They encourage each other. They are doing all the things chemistry-wise we need them to do.
“Our goal is to get better every week. We want to make sure we are working hard enough that we are improving every week and see where we land.”
Kempton hopes he solved one of his biggest concerns after the first two weeks of practice.
“The offensive line has been the big question mark for us going into camp,” he said. “Those guys have really done a good job the first two weeks. We feel like we’ve got five pretty good ones. If we can keep those guys healthy, we feel pretty good about what we are able to do offensively.”
With seniors Sebastian Frias-Imbert and Tomas Giacinti along with junior Michael Dyer returning, the Thunder has a nice nucleus, including JJ Easto, a starter at defensive end as a freshman who has returned to the program.
“All five are over 200 pounds,” Kempton said. “We feel pretty good about our size up front.”
The Thunder began implementing a spread offense in the spring with quarterback Tyler Beasley, wide receivers Nolan Lewellen and Julien Brown and running backs Colin Castro and Jared Flahive the main components.
Out-of-Door has returning players on all levels of its defense.
“It’s nice because we are not depleted at any one level,” Kempton said. “We’ve got guys who understand what we are trying to do defensively.”
With a roster of 28 to 30 players, and seven to eight players asked to perform on both sides of the ball, depth will be an issue. Kempton hopes the experience will help.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who have played for us the last two years and played significant roles for us,” he said. “We’ve got some pretty good skill guys returning, which we feel really good about.”
One area that is not thin is quarterback, as Patrick O’Keefe transferred from Saint Stephen’s and will back up Beasley. Jackson Easto, JJ’s brother, also returned to the program and will provide depth.
Panthers first-year coach Greg Williford is the new man on the block, but no stranger to the SSAC, having served as an assistant at Saint Stephen’s.
Four starters — athlete/linebacker Joey Bivona, quarterback/defensive back Alex Lucas, quarterback/defensive back Josh Seagreaves and two-way lineman Grayson Chatt — return.
“Defensively we look strong,” Williford said.
An area of concern, however, is the offensive line, where Williford said Bradenton Christian is “very young. “Our depth will be a struggle.”
Currently, the Panthers have 25 players, but Williford expects to get more when school begins.
The first-year coach surrounded himself with first-year coordinators in Elton Strawderman on offense and Scott Paravacini on defense after sifting through about 70 resumes for the positions.
Williford has former Manatee High kicker/punter Jonathan Hernandez, who has college experience at Florida State University and the University of South Florida and received tryouts with a couple of NFL teams, working with his kickers.
“I’m excited about our special teams,” Williford said.
There is not much Williford is not excited about these days. The Panthers are getting a new sports complex that will be completed by the start of next football season.
“Everything I’m doing so far is exciting,” Williford said.