The Lemon Bay football team had plenty of time to get used to facing adversity last season.
With its roster dipping to around 30 players and a brutal schedule in front of them, the Manta Rays battled fatigue and injuries each week as they finished 2-8 in 2018.
Though the Mantas haven’t gained much in roster flexibility (up to 36-38 kids), third year coach Don Southwell has put an emphasis on both physical and mental fortitude in what should be another challenging season at Lemon Bay.
“I gave them a week after our season was over, and then we’ve been lifting four days a week since then, with conditioning afterwards,” he said. “This core group of players have been lifting since November.”
One big change for Lemon Bay in 2019 is the opponents it will face off against.
A year after playing in Class 5A with the likes of Hardee (10-1, 5-0), Booker (6-5, 4-1) and DeSoto County (7-4, 3-2), the Mantas will drop down to play in 4A-Region-3.
Classes 1A-4A are smaller than Classes 5A-8A and do not classify schools into districts — only regions.
This means that the Mantas won’t be able to play for a district title, but their path to the playoffs is also a little clearer.
Teams in Classes 1A-4A must finish within the top six teams of their region to qualify for the regional playoffs. For Lemon Bay, this simply means beating out five teams in its 11-team region.
Though the team brings back just one starter on offense and two on defense, Southwell has already been impressed by some new additions to the team.
Colby McCauley is the lone returner on offense and is positioned to be the featured running back while also making an impact in the passing game.
On defense, linebackers Aidan Moore and Henry Schouten are going to be relied upon for their leadership and experience playing in the heart of the defense. Another returner, Louis Baldor is stepping up from second string to a starter on both sides of the line.
But with just three starters from 2018 returning, the Mantas will need some of their newcomers to pull their weight. One likely candidate for that role is quarterback Austin Andrle, whose offseason took Southwell by surprise when spring practice opened.
“He is a lot further along throwing the ball at this point than I expected from the end of last season,” Southwell said. “He put a lot of work in with our quarterbacks coach, coach (Bob) Simila on Wednesdays, which are normally off days for everybody.
“But the quarterbacks and the receivers come out for an hour or so and work on their routes.”
Along with McCauley, Andrle will have Riley Haynes — a senior receiver who Southwell said “has been catching everything” in spring practice.
Haynes’ athleticism means he not only plays receiver and defensive back for the Mantas, but he also serves as the team’s backup quarterback.
With plenty of new faces and a brand-new schedule of opponents, only time will tell how the Mantas fit into their new region.
Friday, they’ll get their first glimpse at what they might be able to expect this fall when the Mantas host Island Coast at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re trying to get better each and every day, and on May 17, we’ll go out there and see how far we’ve come,” Southwell said.
“We’ll use this scrimmage as a measuring stick. We’ll see what we do well, what we need to get better at over the summer.
“And we’ll attack it that way.”