As the spring football season opened for Florida high schools on Monday, so too came the renewed sense of hope and expectations for another year at Venice High.
A season after falling to St. Thomas Aquinas, 38-18, in the state semifinals, Venice has loaded up its schedule with some of the toughest foes in the nation as it looks to make another run in the playoffs.
“It feels good. We had a good day,” Venice coach John Peacock said of the return of football practice. “I’m excited about a new year. Obviously we’re trying to rebuild our program. Hopefully we continue to be on the rise.”
While Venice is “rebuilding” this year, that word carries a different meaning than it would at most high schools.
The Indians have had to replace key seniors before — notably losing the Burton brothers in the mid 2000’s and most recently losing program scoring record-holders Bryce Carpenter and Jaivon Heiligh.
So, it shouldn’t come as a shock if Venice “rebuilds” in short order on its way to another trip to the state playoffs.
Venice’s season kicks off on May 17 at 7:30 p.m. as the Indians travel up to Lakeland to take on the defending state champions.
Players lost: QB Hayden Wolff, RB Brandon Gregory, RB Michael Trapani, WR Sam Whitney, TE Zach Fryar, C Steven Waring, G Charles Juracsik, C Thomas Wildermuth, DE Marlem Louis, DE Carson Sullivan, DT Scott Schenke, LB Nick Giacolone, LB Denique Mayfield, LB Jack Chace, LB Luke Apostolu, S Noah Carr, LS Vincenzo Anthony, K Zack Sessa.
While it’s clear that Peacock and the rest of the Indians coaching staff will have their hands full replacing this star-studded class of seniors, it’s also not as if this circumstance is new at Venice.
For many Indians, senior year is their chance. It’s the opportunity to play a full season with confidence and experience under your belt, and likely play deep into the playoffs.
There may not be a player more symbolic of seizing the opportunity of senior year than Nico DallaCosta.
DallaCosta thought he had a good shot at being the starting quarterback for Venice in 2018 — after sitting behind Carpenter for two years. Then, Hayden Wolff transferred to Venice last spring.
Now with one more year left ahead of him, quarterback Gabe Weldon transferred into the program from Middleton High School (Tampa).
Whether it’s DallaCosta, Weldon, or even rising-sophomore Carson Smith wins the starting job, they’ll have earned the chance.
My guess: DallaCosta wins the starting job.
It would have been painful enough just to lose Brandon Gregory, the Sun’s Co-Player of the Year, after his 31 touchdown season.
Gregory was oftentimes the heart and soul of the Indians offense, running the ball upwards of 20 times — and breaking through for multiple five-score games.
Along with Gregory’s impending graduation, Venice will also lose fellow running back Michael Trapani — a speedster who provided a nice change of pace to Gregory.
Trapani become better as the year went on in 2018, evolving from a third-string change of pace back to a legitimate offensive weapon that converted third downs and also hauled in passes from Wolff.
After dealing with some fumbling and endurance issues last year, Brian Taylor returns to the backfield. The rising senior recently went to the state meet for boys weightlifting and has added some size to his 5-foot-9, 190-pound frame.
Joining Taylor is likely to be Desavion Cassaway, a JV player last year who earned rave reviews from coaches and a call-up to varsity near the end of the 2018 season.
It’s yet to be seen what Cassaway can do at the varsity level — he had two carries last year — but the rising-sophomore could make a big impact in 2019.
My guess: Taylor and Cassaway split carries.
One area where Venice hardly lost anyone is on the offensive line. After a season of dominating opposing pass rushes up until it ran into St. Thomas Aquinas, the Indians’ hogs up front are back in 2019.
Led by left tackle Thomas Shrader, who has received dozens of scholarship offers this offseason, Venice also returns Carson Peters, Ethan Mort and Matt Cochrane — and look for new center Michael Raney to make an impact as well.
Just by watching one practice, it looks as though this group is only bigger and tougher than 2018, and it’s going to be tough to take down whoever wins the starting quarterback job at Venice.
My guess: This group blocks for another Player of the Year candidate
Sam Whitney and Zach Fryar were reliable contributors for the Indians last season — combining for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns.
With both of them heading off to play college football this summer (Fryar at New Mexico Military, Whitney at Furman), there are players eager to show they can fill the void.
Garrett French earned some playing time this past season when Fryar missed time with an injury, catching six passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
As far as wideouts go, the new crop of Indians is going to be hard-pressed to match the stats Weston Wolff put up in 2018 — catching 70 passes for 796 yards and three scores.
In addition to the return of Venice’s top receiver, look for youngsters Jayshon Platt and Miles Weston to take advantage of the attention that Wolff draws from opposing defenses.
My guess: Wolff and French are the go-to targets.
There isn’t a position group that lost more than the defensive front seven did this year. The Indians lost just about every impact player and starter from this group and will need some new players to make their names known — and quickly — to opposing offensive coordinators.
But while these are new faces to the Venice varsity team, the names are familiar.
Heading this new unit includes Holden Prachar (younger brother of former player Riley Prachar) and Jeb Shrader (brother of offensive lineman Thomas Shrader).
Along with Prachar and Shrader, Peacock said Bruce Bowens and Fred Beyer have had good offseasons and are likely to be relied upon in 2019.
At linebacker, Venice will try to replace two key starters in Nick Giacolone (led area in tackles) and Denique Mayfield.
Linebackers Zac Calhoon and Zach Younts saw some time at the position last year and each could handle some increased responsibility this season.
My guess: It takes a month to click, but Prachar and Shrader solidify the unit.
This position group lost one of the most experienced players and best leaders of the 2018 Indians in safety Noah Carr.
Not only was Carr the best defensive back on the team, but he also used his speedy on offense and special teams. It will certainly be hard to replace Carr.
However, it looked like Carr’s savvy play rubbed off on his fellow defenders in 2018 as the cornerbacks grew from an inexperienced group that got burned in an opening-season loss to players who shut down some of the most explosive offenses in the area.
With the return of starting cornerbacks Rowan Foskin and Christian George and the addition of North Port transfer Steffon Johnson, Venice should be fine in the secondary.
My guess: They get tested early and often with explosive offenses, but turn into the best unit on defense.
Kicking at Venice High has been pretty much automatic since Zack Sessa joined the Indians four years ago.
Not only could the Georgia Southern commit hit field goals from as far as 50 yards out, but he also consistently put kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks — neutralizing opponents’ kick returns.
Sessa missed some time last season with a tweaked hamstring and it showed — as Venice tried two different kickers and hardly tried any field goal attempts.
It’ll be nearly impossible to live up to the legacy of Sessa, but Connor Anderson and Luke Wheatley return with some varsity experience under their belt this season, and should fill the role just fine.
My guess: Anderson handles most kicking duties.