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Spring football: Excitement under new head coaches

Posted on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 at 6:00 am

Liberty doubles up Gateway as Ray, Swint star, PHS falls but remains optimistic success will come

By J. Daniel Pearson

Some 90 minutes before kickoff of Poinciana’s spring football game Friday, uncommon excitement and enthusiasm abounded.

News-Gazette Photo/Martin Maddock
Poinciana quarterback Kolton Richards fires a pass in Thursday’s 14-3 spring game loss to Discovery. It was the first time the Eagles took the field in a game setting under new coach Phillip Prior.

Players were running and laughing between drill stations, yelling encouragement on every play.  When a ball hit the ground, every player in the drill was running to get to it first. Even parents seemed excited, proudly recording the warmups on their iPhones. It was a scene that has not been a common occurrence at a school that has struggled on the gridiron for as long as most people can remember.

What has changed at the school that has just won 12 games in the last 10 years and hasn’t had a winning season in almost two decades?  For starters, a new head coach in Phillip Prior, the man responsible for the attitude change.

Prior, who arrived in Kissimmee after serving as an assistant head coach at Leon and Chiles High School in Tallahassee, has been a catalyst in changing the attitudes of the players, staff and parents.

Although Poinciana lost its spring game to Discovery, 14-3, the progress the Eagles are making is observable.

“We’ve told our kids from day one, that our past is our past and it has absolutely nothing to do with our future and what we are going to accomplish here,” Prior said.  “I told them that our hard work, the sacrifices we are willing to make, and our willingness to do things the right way, every day, is what is going to determine our future.   Our kids have done a great job of buying into that but we all know that we have a lot of work to do.”

Prior said his goal is to establish a pro style, run-first offense that will rely on being physical. Defensively, he said he was pleased to discover he had some “size” on his first team and that size will fit into the physical nature of the defense he wants to play.

“Defense is just about attitude and effort — we call it the juice,” he said. “We want our kids to play with the juice on every play and they have really embraced the concept.”

Rising senior Connor Beeken rushed for 112 yards on 15 carries and Jonathan Sanchez added 42 yards on six carries.

Although QB Kolton Richards only completed three of 13 passes for 42 yards and three interceptions, he was victimized by a half dozen drops, something Prior noted will be fixed as the players become more familiar with the scheme.

Defensively, the Eagles forced a turnover and had made more than a dozen tackles behind the line of scrimmage.  All 14 points allowed were off offensive turnovers.

“Overall, I’ve been real happy with our first spring,” Prior said.  “Now we need to continue it during our summer workouts and come into camp with the same positive attitude.”

Liberty 28, Gateway 14 — the other new coaching tenure in the county, where Brandon Pennington debuted with the Chargers, was met with a win.

Seeing newly-installed offensive and defensive schemes for the first time against a different opponent, Pennington said he was “pretty happy with what we saw.”

“We struggled a little offensively in the first half, and missed some opportunities, but that’s a tribute to Gateway’s defense.”

Quarterback Jaelen Ray, who threw for over 2,000 yards last year and set school records, tossed a pair of touchdown passes to LaRandy Swint, offsetting two interceptions, and scored on another on a touchdown run set up by a big Swint catch. Swint also added an interception on defense.

News-Gazette Photo/Martin Maddock
Liberty receiver LaRandy Swint tries to haul in a pass as Gateway’s Philip Bangura defends.

“Jaelen did a really good job making reads and doing what he was supposed to do,” Pennington said. “He made some mistakes that are common in May, which we have the summer to fix.”

News-Gazette Photo/Martin Maddock
Liberty running back Donovin Johnson pops through the line to gain some yardage in the Chargers’ 28-14 win Thursday over Gateway.

Leading 8-6 coming out of halftime, the Chargers put together a 13-play drive that ended with a two-yard Donovan Johnson run.

Sports Editor Ken Jackson contributed to this story.