Above, Pinellas Park Patriots running back Pierre Johnson (10) follows the blocking of Connor Lepak (50) in a high school football game against Countryside Oct. 26 at Pinellas Park.
PINELLAS PARK – When Coach Kenny Crawford took over the Pinellas Park High School football team, not only had the team gone 0-10 the previous season, but it wasn’t even wearing the school colors on the field.
The players wore black and white uniforms and “the community hated it,” Crawford said. “I mean, we’re the Patriots. I needed to get them back into red, white and blue.”
That was Crawford’s first order of business when he took control of the team four years ago. What followed was a ground-up effort to rebuild the team. And the hard work paid off: This past 2012 season saw the team become district champions, taking the Class 7A-9 title, and making it to the quarterfinals of the regional playoffs, where it lost 31-21 in a close game to Venice. Prior to Crawford’s leadership, the team hadn’t had a winning season since 1997, the last time it earned the title of district champs.
At the time Crawford came on board, the varsity team had only 19 players – JV only 18 – and varsity’s record over the previous five years was 5-45. He had his work cut out for him.
“We were a laughingstock,” he said. “It was tough. When kids don’t have success and it stops being fun, it doesn’t take long for a program to crumble.”
Crawford, who also joined the staff as a gym teacher, hit the school’s halls, trying to convince students to forget about the team’s bad reputation and come out for football that year. It was a difficult sell and some students who were interested weren’t permitted to play because of poor grades.
“So we targeted academics,” he said. “We worked with the kids with grade issues.”
Slowly the numbers grew, and today the varsity team boasts 70 players, and JV about 65.
“Right now, 12 percent of the male population at the school plays football,” he said.
Equipment was another big issue for Crawford that first season. The weight room could only accommodate about 25 players at a time, and most of the aging equipment was from the 1970s, when the school was built. “We put a big emphasis on the weight room,” he said. “Basically we had to bulldoze it.”
And new uniforms were needed, not just because Crawford had brought back the school colors, but because the team was attracting more and more players.
With no additional money in the school’s budget for the team, Crawford had to take matters into his own hands, and the players fund raised to buy the new equipment it needed. Today the weight room can accommodate 40 players at a time.
“It might not look like much,” Crawford said, “but we paid for it.”
He also changed up the team’s approach to the game. Previous coaches ran a spread-style offense typically seen run by college teams, Crawford said. This style of play tends to focus more on individual players.
“So we went old school, focusing on ball control and a defense-first mentality,” he said. “It’s about the team. It’s about 11 guys, 45 guys working together to accomplish one goal; it’s not about one guy carrying the load.”
Crawford’s goal was for the team to slowly improve over several years.
“We just wanted to get some respect from the other teams and maybe win a few games,” said senior Garret Nevitt, fullback/linebacker.
But the results were immediate and substantial. In Crawford’s first season coaching, the team’s record was 5-5 – a huge improvement over the previous season. The following season, the team again went 5-5, a record Crawford says would have been better had several starting players not been injured. The Patriots followed with a 7-4 record in 2011, before losing 55-2 to Manatee in the playoffs.
The bleachers once were empty during games, now the team draws large, enthusiastic crowds. “That first season, the stands weren’t even half full,” said senior Connor Lepak. “Now they’re overflowing. There’s more pride. This has brought the school closer together.”
Despite a number of seniors graduating this year, Crawford has high hopes for next season. This year, the JV team went undefeated, 7-0, outscoring its opponents 238-33. Many of the stars from that team will be moving up to varsity in 2013.
“There’s a lot to look forward to,” he said.
Dante Maxson scored 13 touchdowns for JV this past season, and will be joining the varsity squad in the fall.“We just want to keep it going,” he said. “We’ll focus on not dropping the ball.”
Junior Brandon Kubisak added, “The plan is to keep building on the legacy, and hopefully win another title. The team has really come a long way.”