Prep football: Immokalee still playing after 'challenging' season of distractions, injuries

David Albers/Staff
- Immokalee assistant coach Tim Howell works from a playbook with players during practice on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, in Immokalee.

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David Albers/Staff - Immokalee assistant coach Tim Howell works from a playbook with players during practice on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, in Immokalee.

The Immokalee High School football team is exactly where it was expected to be at this point in the season — still playing.

Following an entire offseason of hype surrounding perhaps the most heavily recruited senior class ever in Southwest Florida, it's no surprise Immokalee is back in the regional championship game for a second straight year.

But not everything has gone according to plan in Immokalee.

With up to a dozen future Division I college players, Immokalee was supposed to coast to a state title this season. Instead, distractions — from injuries to an ugly investigation — have made the Indians' path to the regional finals more difficult than they could have imagined back in August.

"I wouldn't say 'tough'," senior offensive lineman Michael Campbell said when asked about the season. "We've had to overcome some obstacles, but I wouldn't say 'tough.' I would say 'challenging'."

There was the ugly scene at Naples High when a coach and several players went into the stands following an argument with their own fans. Then came the injuries that have caused nearly half the starters to miss playing time.

All this why playing under the pressure from monumental expectations created by the media coverage of the Indians' stars before the year.

Dealing with, and getting past, the distractions has made the team stronger, players and coaches say. Even with all that has gone wrong, the Indians know the ultimate prize — a state championship — still is theirs for the taking.

"It's been a very difficult season," Immokalee third-year coach Jerrod Ackley said. "We've gone through lots of things both on and off the field. As a team we've had to continue to refocus on our task.

"We always tell our players to focus on the next play, not the last play. Where we're at now in the season, we want to focus on what's next and learn from what happened. Everything is still in front of us. We've just got to go and get it."

THINGS GET UGLY

After trouncing Sanford-Seminole, an 8A playoff team, in Week 1, things went downhill quickly for the Indians. Immokalee suffered an upsetting 55-29 loss at rival Naples High the next week that turned worse after the game.

Following an argument between a player and an assistant coach, the player's family began shouting at the Immokalee coaching staff. Wide receivers coach and Immokalee graduate Rodelin Anthony went into the stands out of concern for the safety of his fiancé and 5-year-old son who were seated near the hecklers.

There was no physical confrontation. Anthony missed one game while under investigation but was cleared of any wrongdoing. So were the two players who jumped the fence to go after him.

Still, the negative attention brought on the program, including a mention on a national sports website, was a black mark on an already deteriorating program.

"It bothered us for a couple weeks," said senior linebacker Mackenro Alexander, who was one of the players who went into the stands at Naples and sat out the following game. "After that, we let it go. We can't change it."

The investigation into the incident at Naples revealed a deeper issue. Numerous sworn statements from coaches, coaches' wives, players, parents and fans showed that the problem fans, three of whom were barred from Collier Count Public Schools property, had been harassing the Immokalee coaching staff for months.

The subject of the unruly fans' ire was Ackley, an outsider in a tight-knit community and one of few white people in town. Those interviewed by the school district said a group of detractors was trying to get Ackley fired and had even threatened to do harm to the coach.

In a statement to investigators, Ackley's wife, Rishay, said she feared for her family's well-being.

"When you go through situations like this, you question your dedication to the profession," he said. "With the things my family has gone through, this has been the most trying year in my career. Ultimately it's about the kids, and that's what's frustrating. You can dislike me, but if you want to sabotage me, you're hurting the kids you're supposed to care about."

The actions of the problem spectators led to Immokalee losing its defensive coordinator. After the heckling of his son Zach, a starting linebacker, became too much to bear, Allen Williams left the Indians coaching staff in May following the spring game.

Williams, an Immokalee graduate, and his son now are at First Baptist, where the Lions play Friday in the 2A semifinals.

"People in Immokalee are not the same anymore," said Anthony, who played on the Indians' 2004 state championship team. "A lot of morals and values are out the window. The parents are becoming worse than the kids.

"It's distracting the kids all the time. You can read it on their faces. Our kids aren't stupid. They know what's going on. It's in the back of their minds all the time."

THE ROAD BACK

Ackley said things have gotten better since the investigation and since the three fans have been banned. Coaches' families, including Ackley's wife and 1- and 4-year-old sons, sit in their own section in the stands.

The Indians coach said the community rallied around Anthony, the staff and the players after the incident, which brought the team closer together.

While chemistry improved, the Indians' health took a turn for the worse. Ackley counted 13 starters who suffered injuries this year, seven who had to miss a least one game. That includes quarterback Tshumbi Johnson, running back D'Ernest Johnson (Tshumbi's brother) and Jacky Marcellus.

On a team that started the season with just 25 varsity players, many who already play on both sides of the ball, the injuries were detrimental. Ackley had to ask his remaining players to contribute even more in addition to bringing up several underclassmen from the junior varsity team.

"Injuries are just part of the game," said Campbell, who switched from right guard to center after Kerby Henry went down. "You have to do extra without (the injured players). We're very resilient. Other guys had to step up."

The breaking point of the season came in a Week 8 home loss to Barron Collier that dropped Immokalee to 5-3. The Indians were short-handed but felt they were the better team. As a result, players admit they might have looked past the Cougars.

"A couple a guys got bigheaded because we're so hyped," said Alexander, who is verbally committed to Florida State. "We forgot how we got there, with hard work and dedication. We started slacking off because we figured we have so many D-I athletes on our team."

Though it stung at the time, the loss to Barron Collier might have been good for Immokalee. The Indians regrouped in their bye week and came back with a 50-7 win over Golden Gate in Week 10 that secured the district championship.

Since the loss, Immokalee has won four straight, including two playoff games, and outscored its opponents 134-32. "We needed a loss to come back down to earth," Alexander said. "We get it now. We're hungry again. Now we just have to go out and get it."

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