The 2016 version of the Marco Island Academy Rays football team is not a polished veteran unit as they go through spring drills on the practice field adjacent to the Marco Island Charter Middle School.

The Rays lost a lot of talent from a team that struggled through a 2-8 season last year while competing in what some consider the toughest Class 2A district in the state.

Gone is starting quarterback Andrew Fowler, the area’s leading passer last season with 1,969 yards and 18 touchdowns. Fowler, the son of former Rays head coach Greg Fowler who resigned at the conclusion of last season, will play his senior season elsewhere.

Among those lost to graduation are Patrick Michel, last year’s rushing leader with 925 yards; Tyler Wallace, the team's receptions leader with 43 and touchdown catches leader with nine, and Austin Gross, the team’s second-leading rusher with 330 yards.

New head coach Damon Coiro understands the challenge that he faces.

“We’re definitely a work in progress,” Coiro said at the end of Wednesday’s practice. “They’ve bought into the process of getting better. And they understand that it is a process. We preach that to them every day. We talk about leadership and staying the course, and being positive, and understanding the process.”

Life lessons

“We're right at 30 kids right now,” Coiro said. "That’s where we need to be. With enrollment we should be able to add 10 more players in the fall. The interest is there. They’re just excited about being out here and being together. And, for the most part, that’s what high school football is all about. It’s about being out here with your friends, learning to do the right thing, taking away life lessons. That’s what we’re out here teaching.”

Coiro realizes his team has lost talent, but he is encouraged with who he has back, including Tyler Gresham, a bruising running back who was the team leader in receiving yards last season with 653. Gresham’s yards-per-catch numbers were an incredible 28.3.

He also picked up 291 yards rushing. He’s hard to bring down when he’s got a head of steam, and he also has some nifty moves for a big man. Coiro is counting on the emotional Gresham for leadership — and possibly as a quarterback.

“I’m not going to tip my hand on that right now,” Coiro said, “it’s constant competition and constant evaluating on a daily basis. We’ll let them compete through the spring and through the summer. One of the boys who is competing is coming off a knee injury, so he hasn’t had a chance to be out here and go live.

“Come day one, when you’re playing to play in November or December, that’s when your starter will step in. Right now it’s a good opportunity for me to come in and see everybody move around in the weight room and on the field and see how they act in the classroom and their character in the school building.

4 leaders return

"I know if you look on paper, numbers wise, eight seniors graduated. But four of the five offensive linemen come back. Four leaders from that program come back. Tyler Gresham, Bon Deese, Kyle Ginther and Vinnie Moller are four kids who stick out in my mind.

"Even if we go out with average football players, we’re going to go out with average football players with great attitudes. At this level you can win those games. And we’ve got a couple of kids who aren’t average, they’re above average.

"I can’t say enough about how all of them all have come together. It’s important to me that we’re a family. That we live that in our actions and in our words. I think it’s important for me at the end of practice to ask if there’s any football family news. If a kid has something great happening we can lift them up, or if there’s stuff going on that’s negative in nature, we’re able to lift those guys up as well. It’s important that we model our words and live those words through our actions.

"This game is a life-changing experience. It should be life changing for the kids and for the community."