WINTER HAVEN — When the sun came up back on Saturday, Aug. 31, things did not look so great for the Winter Haven High football team.
The night before, the Blue Devils had lost to Sebring, falling to 0-2 to start the season. Before that, Winter Haven had lost a one-sided preseason game to Bloomingdale.
A wave of transfers had ravaged the team’s depth chart in the offseason and, in that moment, veteran coach Charlie Tate and his staff were looking at the schedule wondering where the wins would come from.
But a funny thing happened for the Blue Devils.
Winter Haven rested up during a bye week Sept. 6 and, beginning with a home game Sept. 13 against Liberty, the Blue Devils rattled off seven consecutive wins, won their district title and earned a berth in the FHSAA Class 7A Playoffs.
“Seven wins in-a-row, regardless of who you are, is tough,” Tate said. “We were trying to find the first win — and then it just snowballed.”
Winter Haven (7-3) will now get a chance at redemption against Bloomingdale (8-2), which the Blue Devils will host at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Denison Stadium. As a district champ, Winter Haven earned the No. 4 seed in its region, while Bloomingdale earned the No. 5 seed as the top-ranked at-large team.
Tate’s team won its first three games — against Liberty, Ridge Community and Poinciana — in emphatic style, with all three victories registering as shutouts with a margin of at least 28 points.
The next four wins, though, were a lot more interesting. Winter Haven beat Auburndale in a thrilling 29-28 game Oct. 4 before Tampa Catholic by five points, 28-23, the next week. That was followed by an overtime win against George Jenkins and a 13-7 win Oct. 25 to seal the district title.
All the while, Tate has seen a young roster come together.
“It’s been so neat because now these guys are playing with a confidence,” Tate said. “It’s been really remarkable. The kids bonded together and we got well.”
In particular, the Blue Devils got back senior running back Tyreece Anglin, who was injured early in the preseason game against Bloomingdale.
Beyond that, though, Tate credits the staunch play of his defense and the evolution of several players that were new starters at the beginning of the season. After several players transferred out during the offseason, a young roster had to take a few lumps before it got its feet under it.
In particular, Tate said he credits the seniors who stayed — even when other encouraged them to go.
“The ones people would have said ‘you need to come with us to those other places’ — they were all asked and they decided not to,” Tate said. “They said ‘no, I’m a Blue Devil and I’m going to stay here.’ So we’re very proud of them and very happy for them.”
Back on Aug. 31, it would have been hard to imagine the turn the season took for the Blue Devils.
Now, preparing for the playoffs, Tate explained to his team it’s up to them whether the story of their 2019 season continues.
“This is a new chapter,” Tate said. “Is (winning the district title) the final chapter or is it the middle of the book? Let’s make it the middle of the book.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at email@example.com.