Clearwater starting quarterback Colin Wray throws a 60-yard touchdown pass to Semaj James during the Tornadoes 42-7 loss to Cocoa in the Preseason Classic on Friday, August 18, 2017.
CLEARWATER – How do you follow up one of the most successful seasons in a program’s history? That’s the question Clearwater head football coach Don Mesick is faced with this year following a magical run in 2016 that saw the Tornadoes go undefeated in the regular season, winning 10 games and a district title as well its first playoff game in over a decade.
But if any coach is up to the challenge it’s Mesick, a former assistant who in the spring of 2015 took over a turbulent program that had gone winless two years prior and was coming off the surprise resignation of head coach Donnie Abraham.
Using a lead-by-example approach, Mesick has quickly transformed what had been a dormant program into a Pinellas County power, a top-10 team that features plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. And he’s not about to let them slip back into obscurity now that the Tornadoes have tasted success.
“We’re going to take the same attitude that we had last year, and that’s to prepare like champions,” Mesick said during practice earlier this week as his team prepared for the season opener Friday at home versus Dunedin. “That’s what we’re doing, and that’s what we’ve been doing. We started working out at the beginning of January, hardly taking any time off. We’re trying to get to the next level, trying to be an elite football team. We’re not there yet, but we’re just going to keep working until we get there.”
If anything exemplifies Mesick’s regime it’s work ethic. The coach is no stranger to hard work, whether he’s spearheading efforts to repaint the field and clubhouses, constructing a shaded area on the practice field or running plays with his team during practice.
“I’m gonna work hard and I tell the kids I don’t want you to do anything that I’m not willing to do,” he said. “I’m willing to show up here every single day and bust my tail and do everything I can to make the team better, and that’s what I expect out of you. The team sees all the hard work that myself and the coaches put in to get them prepared, and they appreciate that.”
Hard work will only take a team so far, though. Fortunately, despite some key losses, the Tornadoes have enough depth and skill at several positions, including a pair of capable quarterbacks, to remain competitive.
“We’ve got two solid quarterbacks in (senior) Colin Wray and (sophomore) Rent Montie,” Mesick said. “Not that I want Colin to get hurt, but we’re willing to run him because he’s a thick-bodied kid, a really strong kid, and we’ve got a legitimately solid backup if anything were to happen to Colin, someone we can put out there and feel confident in.”
The coach said one of the biggest losses was that of talented wide receiver Jacquez Jones. “He was phenomenal,” Mesick said of the 5’11” speedster who easily led the team in yards, touchdowns and receptions last year. “But we have a lot of guys who have played a lot, including (senior wide receivers) Brannan Demeter … and Semaj James. And in my mind, we have the best running back in the county in Jarius Williams.”
Mesick added that his players now have a desire to get out on the field and compete after having somewhat diminished roles in prior seasons. “These guys are really hungry and what makes them hungry is because we had so many superstar players last year, a lot of these guys thought they should’ve been playing more than they did. So, they really have a hunger to get on the field and play football.”
Mesick said that same hunger applies to how they hope to finish the season following last year’s disappointing 52-25 loss to Charlotte in the Class 6A regional semifinals.
“When you start winning playoff games, you start to get that taste in your mouth, like you want to win,” he said, referring to the Tornadoes’ 27-16 victory over Port Charlotte in the regional quarters last year, the program’s first playoff win since 2003. “Last year, losing that game (against Charlotte) like we did, made these guys really hungry to taste playoff victory again.”
Mesick said he made the Tornadoes 2017 schedule more demanding, due in part to a new system for selecting playoff teams that rewards tougher schedules.
“It’s going to keep some teams that probably don’t deserve to be in the playoffs out of the playoffs, which is good,” he said. “We still hope to win our district, but we’ve made our schedule really difficult. Our non-conference games are against some really tough teams – Countryside and East Lake, Braden River and Mitchell. Those teams were all in the playoffs last year, so we will get points just for playing those teams.”
No matter how tough the Tornadoes schedule is, Mesick said the team’s ultimate goal is to win a state championship.
“It doesn’t matter if you make the playoffs – if you go to one game and lose, there’s really no point in it,” he said. “You have to be there and be prepared to win in the playoffs, and our expectations are to win the state championship. There’s really no reason in setting the bar low.”
Friday night’s local games (all times 7:30 p.m. unless noted)
• Dunedin at Clearwater • Countryside at Osceola • Clearwater Central Catholic at Berkeley Prep • Calvary Christian at Admiral Farragut