It's fitting that one of First Baptist Academy football coach Billy Sparacio's favorite Biblical tales is that of Nehemiah.
Like Nehemiah, who led the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, Sparacio has done some construction of his own. In just four years, Sparacio and his coaches have built First Baptist from scratch into a winner, owner of an undefeated record and bound for the school's first Class 2A state semifinal appearance.
And like Nehemiah, Sparacio, 40, says his work is guided by God, who led him to First Baptist in 2007, to become athletic director of a school with no athletics.
"When I came here, I felt like these young kids here needed what all the public schools had," Sparacio said. "I wanted to be a part of building that wall for them, building that stadium and atmosphere for them to be able to have."
Come Friday, Sparacio's masonry will be on full display, when the Lions — still cubs compared to well-established state powers — travel to Miami-Dade Christian for a berth in the title game. It's further validation of the work by Sparacio and his assistants, who have taken a three-win inaugural team to the brink of a championship.
"You have to have somebody leading the program that the boys say 'I want to be like that.' Billy is that man," said First Baptist administrator Tom Rider. "He's worked incredibly hard and deserves the lion's share, should I say, of credit for what's happened here."
For First Baptist to arrive at this point, it first needed a leap of faith by the football program's architect, a square-jawed, bespectacled former college running back.
In early 2007, while head football coach at Barron Collier High School, Sparacio applied for a job leading a larger North Carolina high school program. After impressing administrators, Sparacio got the news: the North Carolina job had gone to the school's defensive coordinator.
That same day, another school came calling. First Baptist, whose high school had just been formed, was looking for an athletic director to build the program from the ground up — and they wanted him.
"I kind of laughed at it, because here I was kind of seeking out a higher, more responsibility job, and the opening that came into my lap was the athletic director job at a school that didn't even have football," Sparacio said. "It didn't make any sense. In my heart, I had other plans."
Yet during the next two weeks, Sparacio felt called to the school. In taking the job, Sparacio didn't surprise Mark Swanson, under whom Sparacio started as a running backs coach at Lely High School in the late 1990s.
"In a public school, you have to watch what you say. You can't be as open about religion," said Swanson, now the special teams coordinator at Naples. "He always wanted to be in that environment. It's what makes him who he is."
Sparacio and a couple of other coaches started small with meager means. They coached track in a school parking lot and chalked soccer fields themselves.
But for the ninth-leading rusher in school history at Colgate University, located in central New York, football always remained on his mind. With the blessing of the school's pastor — and $1.5 million-plus in donations — First Baptist set out to create its own program, built largely with ninth-graders who are now seniors.
"I think we all saw that it was a special group," said defensive coordinator Matt Jansen, who worked as an assistant for Sparacio at Barron Collier, of the inaugural freshman class. "They always had this idea that football was what they wanted to do."
Carried by remarkable fan and financial support — the Lions are moving into a new, fully-financed 13,000-square-foot field house — First Baptist's players and coaches gradually added wins.
Three in 2009. Four in 2010. Seven in 2011. This season, the Lions have mowed through their first 12 opponents.
Few expected such early football success at the school, which has grown to a population of about 170 with 13 athletics teams.
With the wins have come added notoriety, players said. But they're quick to add that along with victories have come life lessons.
"Coach Sparacio has really taught me to be the aggressor not just in football, but in life," said Alex Diaz, a senior linebacker and fullback. "If you really want something in life, you have to go after it."
For Sparacio, the program has given him a home in Southwest Florida.
When asked whether he ever contemplates how his life would be different had he gotten the North Carolina job, Sparacio falls silent, fighting back tears.
He would have been hundreds of miles away from his father, diagnosed with lymphoma later in 2007.
He never would have built a house on Livingston Road, just down the street for First Baptist, letting his wife and high school sweetheart Tara and their three children jet between home and the school.
It's possible he wouldn't ever have been one game away from playing for a state championship.
"First Baptist Academy, the football and church," Sparacio said, "I think they've had more of an impact on me than I've had on them."