Matanzas experienced growing pains last year. The Pirates lost five of their first six games as sophomore quarterback Dakwon Evans was learning the nuances of coach Matt Forrest's air-raid system and how to play quarterback on the high school level.
Evans finished the season with 1,000 yards passing and 245 yards rushing. Now, Evans and several other young players have a year of experience under their belt as the Pirates begin preseason practice.
Forrest spoke about his team's development, the Pirates' priorities in the first two weeks of preseason camp and how they almost ended up in the same district with Flagler Palm Coast.
What was the highlight of the summer?
Oh, definitely our Fourth of July workout. That that was a great time. It was it was good for our kids to be able to honor a fallen hero and to get a good workout in before our week break. That's always the most fun of the summer. The kids camp was a great addition this year. All those kids had a great time those four days. But the Fourth of July workout is something that's just special every single year.
Which players do you think made the greatest strides in the offseason?
"I think Dakwon (Evans) made strides in his mental development. We spent a lot of time together talking about how to go through his pre-snap reads and be able to read our air-raid style offense going from the first receiver to the second to the third and the check down. Just his development has been astronomical."
— MATT FORREST
I think Dakwon made strides in his mental development. We spent a lot of time together talking about how to go through his pre-snap reads and be able to read our air-raid style offense going from the first receiver to the second to the third and the check down. Just his development has been astronomical.
I feel like (among the) surprises is Peyton Ellis, who's a sophomore offensive lineman who's gonna start for us. I think he has just developed tremendously in the summer. I think he's mentally got a great work ethic, tons better than what he was last fall. And he's just getting stronger every day.
We've had so many great strides from all of our guys. We've had a great buy-in this summer. I could name off 40 or 50 kids that had just really caught our attention. Dayd Peterson, a guy we got from from basketball, came out and decided to play football. He's doing great things on the defensive side of the ball. He's an outside linebacker. So overall, just really proud of our group as a whole.
Heading into preseason practice, what are the Pirates' strengths?
I would like to think that one of our strengths is going to be playing disciplined football, being able to out execute teams. I would like to think that's what we're going to be strong at. But it's just it's hard to tell. I think defensively we can be as good as we want to be. We're still playing some new faces and moving some people around. But I think we've got the opportunity to be good on defense.
I think offensively we've got some holes. We got to fill some positions and some guys got to fight for some spots during camp, especially at the wide receiver position and the running back and tight end positions. And the offensive line. We were so young last year on offense, somebody's got to step up and take control and lead that team. So I think it's going to be a real fun camp. The first 10 practices, two weeks, are going to tell us a lot about where we're going to be heading into the fall season.
With three of your most talented players — linebacker Cole Hash and defensive backs Jordan Mills and Sho'Marion Gaines — starting on defense, it seems like the defense, particularly the secondary will be a team strength.
We feel like our secondary's pretty talented. But we're not naive enough as a coaching staff to think talent is going to win ballgames. We've got to be disciplined back there. We've got to have good alignment, assignment, technique football. You know, it's AATF: alignment assignment technique and finishing. We've got some highly skilled players, but if they're not doing what they're supposed to do when they're supposed to do it, it really doesn't mean anything.
I think that's something that we really progressed at in the spring, because as the season went on last year, I think we got progressively better at our technique and in our discipline. And I think that's why we were playing better. Because I think (early in the season) our guys just thought they were talented football players and that's all they needed to be. So, we really put our focus on discipline and execution. Those guys on the back end, we all know how athletic they are. But their attention to detail, their discipline and their execution have gotten so much better over the summer.
From a fan's perspective, what will be noticeably different about your team this season?
Well, I think we kind of saw it toward the end of the year. Especially the St. Augustine game, in my opinion, was more of our come-out game. You know, St. Augustine is one of the top programs in the entire state of Florida. And my first year here I saw where our guys weren't really up to that challenge mentally, to be able to take on a team of that stature and that prestige. And to see those guys go out last year, and even though our record wasn't what we wanted it to be, to see those guys go out and really fight and be able to hang with that program.
I think is something that you're going to be able to see this year, is just our consistency. I think we're going to be a more consistent football team. I think we're going to be more disciplined. I think we're going to execute at a high level. How many wins does that translate to? Nobody knows. But I do think that we're going to be a lot more fundamentally sound.
How do you assess the district this year, which once again includes St. Augustine?
Winning a district championship is hard. Winning in general is hard. It's a coin flip every single week. Our district certainly has its challenges. St. Augustine is obviously one of the top programs in the entire state. Clay County has had some really great years. Then you got Gainesville, which is super athletic, super talented. They put a good one on us last year. And you throw Pedro Menendez into that mix. It's gonna be a tough year. Our goal is to get a little bit better each and every day and let the chips fall where they may after that. We'll have to play well every single game in order to win. But, you know, that's high school football in Florida, right? I mean, every team's talented and every team's good.
What else stands out on the schedule?
We open up with Pine Ridge. They've done a great job with their new head coach. Then we've got Tocoi Creek, and St. Johns County teams are always tough. We open with the Kickoff Classic against Mainland, and that's going to be a big barometer. That's gonna tell us a lot about what we need to improve on heading into the regular season. We're gonna treat it like we do every kickoff Classic game. The varsity will play in the first half, and we play our JV the second half to get everybody some experience under the lights and to try to get the nerves out, heading into Week 1.
How did it work out that the FPC game is in Week 4?
They're a 4S school and we're a 3S school. This year was kind of quirky where we had them in Week 10 when we were originally supposed to be in (the same) district, but our numbers were wrong. They had us at 2,500 students and we only have 1,800. So when we got redistributed and went back down to 3S, it posed a scheduling problem, because we already had a Week 11 game and we already had our bye week in place, so Week 4 was really our only option. (FPC coach Robert Paxia) did a great job. We communicated and talked about it, and we made it fit because the game is so important to our community.