Editor’s Note: Brandon Gregory and Alex Muse were selected as Co-Players of the Year. Muse’s story appears today in the Charlotte, North Port and Englewood Sun newspapers and on yoursun.com.
When he was a freshman at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill, California, Brandon Gregory had a decision to make.
Would he leave behind his friends and teammates for a new life in Florida?
With the high cost of living in California and family near Venice, Gregory soon made up his mind. He took weeks to study local schools, eventually picking Venice High among options such as Braden River and Plant High Schools.
Nearly three years later, and Gregory has become a Florida state champion with the Indians, and his remarkable senior season has also earned him the Sun’s^p Co-Player of the Year honors.
For Gregory, the move to Venice has paid off in a big way. Despite a hand injury in his junior season, he came back in 2018 to rush for 1,489 yards and score 31 total touchdowns.
“That’s one thing I’m very grateful for and something I always think about,” Gregory said of moving to Florida. “If I was to stay where I was before, I know I wouldn’t be as strong or as talented as I am today. They’ve coached me up in so much. I’m very thankful for coming to Venice.”
A slow start
Gregory hasn’t always been in the spotlight as an Indian.
When he first moved to the area toward the end of his freshman year, the Indians coaching staff wasn’t quite sure what to do with him.
He bounced around a bit from running back to receiver and back again, and didn’t earn any playing time as a sophomore — something that took some getting used to.
“He was unknown to everyone, so he didn’t play much as a sophomore,” said Brandon’s mother, Jill Gregory. “That was devastating to him because he worked his butt off at practice, and you can imagine how hard those practices are.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d pick him up after practice and he would be like, ‘I’m quitting. Why am I doing this? I’m working my butt off and I’m sitting on the bench.’ He wasn’t used to that.”
Gregory spent that sophomore season on the scout team offense, helping the starting defense prepare each week by mimicking how the opposition ran its offense. Though he didn’t mind doing whatever it took to win, the constant work with no reward took its toll on him.
“That was very frustrating,” he said of not playing as a sophomore. “Coming here, I was kind of like a practice dummy. I ran through all the scout stuff and did the best I could to help our starting defense prepare for the game.”
So, when his junior year finally rolled around, Gregory was excited to say the least.
But as fate would have it, it wasn’t Gregory’s time to shine after all.
A couple of weeks before the season began, Indians quarterback Bryce Carpenter threw a low pass to Gregory. As Gregory tried to scoop the pass into his hands, his finger caught the force of the ball head-on, shattering it. Then, on the ground, his hand was hit again and ruptured the joint in his hand.
“I thought I had just jammed it,” he said. “After that, I caught another pass and I was like, ‘OK, something is seriously messed up.’ So I took my glove off and I went over to coach (Clay) Burton and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think my finger is right,’ because it was completely slanted to the side.”
The injury forced Gregory into a full-arm cast as he missed the first two months of the football season. Not only was his first chance to play for Venice taken from him just as it was about to unfold, but he also lost the majority of his junior season — a pivotal time for recruitment.
“It was the most devastated I think I’ve seen him ever,” Jill Gregory said. “We just both cried in the doctor’s office in the emergency room that day because he knew how it was going to impact his football career. And it did. He went through a depression. He stopped studying, he just didn’t care anymore.
“But he came back, and he came back strong in his senior season. I told him, ‘You can’t physically play, but you can work on your mental and emotional game,’ and he did. He watched videos and studied other teams. He really utilized his time to become a better player.”
Not only did Gregory work on the mental and emotional aspects of football, but he never stopped keeping his body in shape.
Whether it be squats, box jumps, or sprints, he routinely stayed after practice to keep himself ready should he be able to return. He even continued to lift with just his right arm, but stopped as the right side of his body grew much bigger than the left.
Despite the doctor’s original estimations, Gregory returned in time to play the final three regular season games of his junior year and in the playoffs.
Because he had kept himself ready, the junior hit the ground running.
He reeled off 671 yards and 8 touchdowns over that final stretch, starting for the first time as an Indian as his team eventually won the 7A state championship.
“There are no words to describe how proud I was in that moment,” said Jill Gregory of when Venice won the 7A state title. “Just looking back on his decision to leave California and all his friends and to come to Florida. Through everything he went through, for every time he wanted to give up and he didn’t.”
With a state title in hand, Gregory carried his positive momentum forward into 2018.
And even though a tweak in his back provided a brief scare and caused him to miss Week 1 of the season, Gregory rebounded to lead the area in several categories including rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and overall touchdowns.
He even made a return to the passing game as a senior, catching 18 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
“We felt very comfortable putting him back there and giving him the ball,” Venice coach John Peacock said of Gregory. “As it progressed, he started making plays. He was a guy who never got tackled by the first defender, he made guys miss. He was just really explosive for us. We knew if we kept giving him the ball, he was gonna pop a big one.”
Though the Indians didn’t end up winning the state title this year, the season was almost just as special for Gregory, as the senior got to finally make the most of his decision to move to Venice.
“That was amazing for me,” Gregory said of his senior season. “Because coming here, with everything going on, not getting the starting time I felt like I deserved, or any playing time at all. And going through the injury my junior year, which was a very critical point in my recruitment, having the senior season I did this year gave me hope that I have the chance to go to college and fulfill my dreams.”
With his high school football career officially over, Gregory is savoring the first “off-time” from football he’s had since he was 5 years old. Whether it be playing pick-up basketball or going to the beach with friends, he’s appreciating the little time left he has left at home.
While he’s grown up into a high school football star with college aspirations on the horizon, the teammates who were once strangers to him have become people he can hardly imagine living without.
“I’m gonna remember every small moment with them honestly,” he said. “From waking up early in the mornings for summer workouts and everything we’ve been through together. With the Venice program, we’re always around each other so it’s really like a family and your teammates are truly like brothers. That’s probably what I’ll end up missing the most.”
Hayden Wolff, QB, Venice: Following one of the best players in school history in Bryce Carpenter, Wolff lived up to the hype in 2018. The 6-foot-5, 210 pound senior led Venice to a 12-2 record and was named team Offensive MVP for his statistical season of 2,684 passing yards on 63.2 percent completion rate with 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Wolff will soon be off to Old Dominion University after signing his National Letter of Intent last week.
“He was a great leader,” Venice coach John Peacock said. “He has a very strong arm and makes good decisions. He’s a student of the game who ran our offense to perfection.”
Logan Rogers, QB, Port Charlotte: Only a sophomore fresh out of Pop Warner, Rogers stepped in admirably for the Pirates and kept the offense churning. Rogers threw for 1,152 yards with 21 total touchdowns (14 rush, 7 pass).
“Development-wise I thought he did a phenomenal job given the circumstances,” Port Charlotte coach Jordan Ingman said. “Coming from Pop Warner as a freshman to starting as a sophomore is something I’ve never seen at the quarterback position. He’s as tough as it comes.”
Jayden Grant, RB, Charlotte: Grant was the bruiser of the rushing trio for Charlotte. He consistently carried for tough yards up the middle and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Grant finished the year with 604 yards and 10 touchdowns. Grant was also selected to the FACA all-star game.
“Jayden is our best football player,” Charlotte coach Binky Waldrop said. “He played both sides of the ball and didn’t get a lot of breaks, but tough as they come. What a great football player.”
Keegan Marinola, RB, Lemon Bay: A bruising back who also saw time playing defense at defensive end and linebacker, Marinola was the heart and soul of the Manta Rays offense in the second half of 2018. Marinola, a senior, rushed for 776 of his 1,036 yards over the final five games for Lemon Bay.
“Keegan is built for that inside, tough running,” Lemon Bay coach Don Southwell said. “He’s a big strong kid who can handle the carries. He’s deceptively quick with his size and he finished every run. He never got knocked back on a run that I can recall.”
Weston Wolff, WR, Venice: A player who Peacock and the rest of the Indians coaching staff initially had pegged for JV, Wolff not only made varsity, but became the go-to weapon in the passing game for Venice. Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-5 Wolff brought in an eye-popping 70 catches for 796 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the final game of Venice’s season against St. Thomas Aquinas, Wolff brought in eight catches for 115 yards.
“He was someone that we could count on, and it didn’t matter who was covering him,” Peacock said. “In the St. Thomas game, he was making catches and plays against the top corners in the country.”
Tyler Perry, WR, Port Charlotte: Though Perry made his name at receiver, garnering an offer to play at the University of South Dakota, the 6-foot-3 athlete did more than just catch. Along with his 437 yards and four touchdowns on offense, he recorded eight sacks at defense end as well.
“He played five positions by the end,” Ingman said. “His willingness to learn every one of them was something we really appreciated as a coaching staff. He’s a great talent that will do very well at the next level.”
Devante Roberson, WR, Lemon Bay: A do-it-all player for Lemon Bay, Roberson served as a starting receiver, defensive back and the backup quarterback in 2018. Known for his big-play ability, Roberson scored three touchdowns of over 60 yards and caused some turnovers on the defensive end as well.
“He’s got really good ball skills and he has great hands,” Southwell said. “He can run. He’s a legit high 4.5, 4.6 (40-yard dash) guy. He’s got a little bit of shake to him as well. He’s just an overall athlete. He played a little bit of safety, he was our backup quarterback. He was a jack of all trades for us.”
Dustyn Hall, OL, Charlotte: The Tarpon offensive line was stacked when healthy, which helped them produce a potent rushing attack that averaged 200 yards per game. A 320-pound, USF-bound tackle, Hall helped lead the line until injury sidelined him late in the season.
“Just a dominating player,” Waldrop said. “Not very often do you get a kid on the line that’s a difference maker and he was for us. It really hurt us the last four games not having him.”
Caden Marcum, OL, Port Charlotte: The heart and soul of the offensive line, Marcum moved around when needed. He started at tackle and ended at center. Standing 6-foot-3 and 300-plus pounds, Marcum led the Pirate line with 28 pancake blocks.
“Caden was a guy that was very unselfish,” Ingman said. “He could play every position on the line and was a true leader down there for us with a bunch of young guys. He really guided a young group and did a great job in the leadership department.”
Thomas Shrader, OL, Venice: Another player who the Indians coaching staff wasn’t counting on in 2018, Shrader proved his worth on the offensive line, helping block the way for Brandon Gregory’s 1,489 rushing yards and Co-Player of the Year season. With an offer to USF already in hand, the potential for Shrader is wide open when he returns for his senior season in 2019.
“Thomas was a huge surprise,” Peacock said. “You’re talking about a kid who was a JV player for us last year and he came up and did a great job. He was probably the best center we’ve had in a long time. We were shocked by him. He brought the whole offensive line together and really made it what is was.”
Brock Lavallee, OL, Lemon Bay: A three-year starter for Lemon Bay, Lavallee was one of the Mantas’ most important leaders in 2018. Providing stability to an offensive line sorely in need of it, Lavallee helped block the way for Marinola’s 1,000+ yard season.
“What a great kid he is,” Southwell said. “He’s doing great things right now in wrestling. He’ll probably be in the top three in his weight class. I think with all the things he learned through wrestling over the years that he brought that to the football field. He was solid for us. He provided great leadership for our guys.”
Brett Brown, OL, North Port: Brown was a two-year starter at guard for the Bobcats and was selected to the all-area team as a sophomore as well. He opened up holes for teammates Jalien Whye, who rushed for over 600 yards.
“He’s an old school offensive lineman,” North Port coach Brian Hatler said. “He enjoys the physicality of the position, seeks out contact. He’s just a dominant run blocker.”
Kenny Scribner, P, Charlotte: Another FACA all-star selection, Scribner kicked and punted for the tarpons and played a large role in pinning teams deep. Scribner, a USF signee, averaged 43 yards per punt as a senior, consistently flipping the field.
“Kenny obviously is a great kicker,” Waldrop said. “He puts the ball in the end zone on kickoffs. He averaged 43 yards a punt this year and that’s what makes you a Division I football player.”
Zack Sessa, K, Venice: One of the most talented kickers to play football in Southwest Florida, Sessa still had a nearly perfect season despite fighting through a hamstring injury for a few weeks. Sessa was 26-for-27 on extra points and 7-for-8 on field goals, with over 70 percent of his kickoffs going for touchbacks. The senior also played some receiver, hauling in a 74-yard touchdown in the 7A-3 regional semifinals against Braden River.
“Zack is meticulous about his kicking,” Peacock said. “He’s a perfectionist, and that’s why he’s one of the best kickers in the country. He had an unbelievable year and an unbelievable career for us.”
Marc Jean-Louis, ATH, Port Charlotte: Jean-Louis was the do-it-all player for the Pirates. He played running back, caught passes, threw passes and played defensive back at times. He rushed for 641 yards (9.6 yards per rush) with 403 receiving yards (16.9 yards per catch) and 15 total touchdowns.
“Marc has been a four-year mainstay for us,” Ingman said. “He unfortunately had a bunch of injuries he was able to battle through in his career and put together a great senior year. He’s dynamic. He can catch the ball deep, he can catch the pitch, run inside. He’s a great football player.”
Brandon Leacock, DL, Port Charlotte: One of the more disruptive defensive linemen in the area, Leacock made a home in opponents’ backfields. He was second on the team with seven sacks.
“Brandon was a versatile athlete that we think will do good things at the next level,” Ingman said. “He can rush the passer very well and a natural knack for that. I think that will really pay dividends for him as he moves on with his career.”
Wyatt Soucy, DL, Lemon Bay: A three-year starter who played both defensive and offensive line for the Mantas this year, Soucy made his impact felt in the trenches every Friday. The senior had a knack for causing turnovers and havoc in the backfield, giving a spark to a tough Lemon Bay defense.
“It’s one thing to play wideout and let’s say DB,” Southwell said. “But to be an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman and to play almost every snap of every game, there’s not a lot of people out there who can do that and do it well. And he did that. He’s super strong, super competitive and he just loves to play football. He was a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball.”
Carson Sullivan, DL, Venice: Called “undersized” by some, Sullivan put any doubts to rest in 2018 as he broke the school sack record with 14.5 sacks through 11 games. The senior also finished third on the Indians with 111 total tackles, and first on the team with 22.5 tackles for a loss.
“Carson is unbelievable,” Peacock said. “He has an unbelievable motor, he’s an unbelievable kid. He’s one of those kids who we want to build our program off of — kids like him. He’s tough as nails and that motor and his heart are things you can’t measure.”
Marlem Louis, DL, Venice: The Defensive MVP of the Indians, Louis was a leader on the field who wasn’t afraid to fire his teammates up. With 100 total tackles and 8 sacks, Louis was a consistent threat to disrupt the opposing offense on Friday nights.
“Marlem did great,” Peacock said. “He was one of the reasons it was so tough for teams to run on us. He did a great job of shutting down the edge. He lined up on the strength of their formation and he also did a great job of getting to the quarterback. He’s a guy the other team had to account for on every snap.”
Cutter Rebol, LB, Charlotte: The Tarpon defense kept teams to an average of 17.7 points per game this year and senior Rebol had a hand in it. He was all over the field in the Tarpons’ playoff push.
“Cutter was our rock all year,” Waldrop said. “He called our defensive, led our team in points. He’s just a workaholic, that’s what made him so good. He just outworks everybody.”
Nick Giacolone, LB, Venice: Though Giacolone was an Indian for just one season, he made it count. The senior made sure few ball carriers made it past him, leading the team and the area with 168 total tackles through 14 games. In the 7A semifinals, Giacolone kept Venice’s hopes alive by grabbing a first-half interception.
“He’s one that’s going to be very, very hard to replace,” Peacock said. “Just his speed and how physical he was and how emotional he is. He’s a highly emotional kid on the field and that’s something we’re gonna have to replace next year.”
Jake Monzeglio, LB, Port Charlotte: An instinctive linebacker, Monzeglio had a knack for sniffing out plays. He lead the team with 119 tackles on the year and scored on a pick-6 against Ida Baker after he jumped a slant route.
“Jake was an old school kid,” Ingman said. “A guy that just loved the physicality of the game. He played sideline to sideline because he combined his athleticism with a toughness that’s an incredible combination as a linebacker.”
Shevon Pearce, DB, Port Charlotte: Pearce helped lead the back end of the Pirate defense as a junior. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions with a pick-6 and a special teams touchdown.
“Shevy is a guy that we’re excited about,” Ingman said. “He works extremely hard on and off the field. He’s a dynamic playmaker. He returned kicks for us in addition to playing in the secondary and he’ll see more time on the offensive side of the ball next year because he’s that good of a player.”
Tai’Viahn Kelly, DB, Charlotte: Kelly was a dynamic player defensively. He helped keep the back end solid and helped seal a win vs. Fort Myers with a late interception. He also had a hand in kick returns as well. He had 226 return yards as well as a rushing touchdown.
“You’ll be reading a lot about this kid in the next two years,” Waldrop said. “He’s fast, he’s strong and he’s gonna be a great player. He already is great, but he’s gonna be even better.”
Jeremiah Harvey, DB, Charlotte: Harvey was the Swiss Army knife for the Tarpons. He rushed for 409 yards and caught 21 passes for 409 yards with 12 total touchdowns, but was also one of their top defenders. Against Fort Myers, Harvey caught a deep touchdown to close out the first half and then intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the 28-20 win.
“Jeremiah’s another one that plays both sides,” Waldrop said. “He’s one of our best DBs, running back he runs, we put him out he catches. He can do anything on a football field.”
Noah Carr, DB, Venice: It would have been nearly impossible for Carr to contribute more than he did in 2018. Along with leading a young defensive secondary, the senior also served as a receiver and kick returner, giving his team a spark in every facet of the game. Carr led the team with 4 INTs, including an 85-yard pick six against Braden River in the 7A-3 regional semifinals.
“Oh, man Noah meant everything to us,” Peacock said. “We asked him to do an awful lot — more than anyone else on the team. Catch punts, make checks as far as coverages on defense. And we put him in big situations for us in the passing game, and he stepped up.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Zach Fryar (VHS), Charles Juracsik (VHS), Scott Schenke (VHS), Denique Mayfield (VHS), Vincenzo Anthony (VHS), Robert Washington (NP), Jalien Whye (NP), D.J. Augustin (NP), Andrew Konnemann (NP), Kyle Dragon (LB), Aidan Moore (LB), Aidan Cannon (LB), Derrick McCormick (PC), Solomon Luther (PC), Chase Watter (CH), Anthony Whitehead (CH), Eddie Koor (CH), Freddie Fletcher (CH)