MARCO ISLAND — As teams started fall practice Monday, the football scene in Southwest Florida had a fresh look that was more than just another season's beginning.
Like any season, there were new players and new coaches on the field on the first day the Florida High School Athletic Association allows practice. Joining the new people this fall is an entirely new program.
While Barron Collier, Gulf Coast, Lely and Palmetto Ridge welcomed coaches to their first fall practices with their new teams, the Marco Island Academy got its football team up and running. Rain and lightning limited what the Rays could do Monday afternoon at Mackle Park, but Marco Island players and coaches remained thrilled to take part in their first official activities.
"We're looking forward just to trying on our pads," said Peter Servente, 15, a sophomore. "It's going to be fun to get experience and be able to earn varsity letters."
In the school's second year, Marco Island Academy is making the leap directly to varsity this season. The Rays have a slate of 10 games scheduled, six against other small school varsity programs and four against junior varsity teams.
Around 30 players received their equipment Monday. Marco Island coach Andy Delgado was impressed with the turnout, especially since the school has just 115 students in grades 9 through 11. The academy does not yet have a senior class.
"I'm very happy," said Delgado, who has been a head coach at the youth football level but not varsity. "The bulk of our team is ninth and 10th graders. Our size and speed isn't too bad. We expect to win a few games."
Delgado was one of three men in Collier County starting his first season as a head coach with Monday's practice. Palmetto Ridge's Ryan Mitchell and Lely's Stacey Stewart, the other two, have been with their teams since the spring, but said running their first practice of the fall was something special.
"(Monday) was awesome," said Stewart, a 1987 graduate of Lely. "People don't see all the goes on behind the scenes for a head coach to get ready for the season, but when we hit that field, I relax. When we get out on that field, that's my favorite part."
Mitchell got his season with the Bears started as soon as possible. Palmetto Ridge held its first midnight practice as Sunday night turned into early Monday morning.
Practicing in the dark under the stadium lights, like a Friday night game, was a hit with the Bears. Players also were eager to get back to work under a new coaching staff.
"We like Coach Mitchell as a head coach," said junior running back Ron Johnson. "He understands us and relates to us. We're all excited."
Three teams in Naples held their first practices at the stroke of midnight Monday morning. Golden Gate did it for the first time, while Community School practiced early for the second straight year.
The two other coaches who started their tenures in Collier County on Monday aren't new to the sidelines. However Barron Collier's Dan Pallante and Gulf Coast's Pete Fominaya were thrilled to finally get their first seasons going at their new schools.
Pallante is more than familiar with his players. He served as the Cougars' defensive coordinator the past two years, and took over as head coach when Mark Ivey left for Appalachian State in the spring.
Still, it was nice to have control of his own team again, Pallante said. This is his first head coaching job since he was at Baldwin High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., from 2007 to 2009.
"It's a good feeling," Pallante said. "The biggest thing is you finally get a chance to put your stamp on the football program."
Fominaya returns to Gulf Coast to try to turn around his alma mater's football program. Fominaya played on the Sharks' first team in the fall of 1998 and graduated in 2000. He spent the past three seasons at Lehigh, his first head coaching job.