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COVID-19 affected football season provides opportunity for area teams that aren't playoff mainstays

Adam Regan
Fort Myers News-Press

First-year Mariner coach Josh Nicholson is seeking to change the culture of a once-great Lee County program that has fallen on hard times, not posting a winning season in the last 13 years.

It starts in the weight room and on the practice field and, hopefully, transfers onto the field into wins, Nicholson said. Despite a 3-game winning streak the Tritons (3-4) aren’t quite a playoff-caliber team.

But 2020 is no ordinary year.

Mariner is among several Southwest Florida teams which weren’t expecting to make the state playoffs this season getting the opportunity to experience postseason football a year or two ahead of schedule. And it could pay dividends down the road for the programs and their players.

Mariner (3-4) will host Melbourne Palm Bay (0-5) in a Class 5A play-in game Friday. It is the program's first state playoff appearance in 16 years. When the Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors voted to push back the season more than a month to Sept. 3 it gave all of its membership schools the chance to opt into the state series.

“I know our boys are excited,” said Nicholson, whose team will host Melbourne Palm Bay (0-5) in a Class 5A play-in game on Friday. “It’s kind of that light at the end of the tunnel.”

A reward of sorts for the players and coaches who are enthusiastic about being on the ground floor of a project to return Mariner to the postseason mainstay it was in the 1990s.

It’s perhaps one of the few positive things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When the Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors voted to push back the season more than a month to Sept. 3 it gave all of its member schools the chance to opt into the state series. District championships and RPI rankings, which were used to qualify for the postseason, were pushed to the side for one season.

For Mariner, it’s the Tritons’ first playoff appearance since 2004 when they beat Charlotte in a regional quarterfinal and lost to state powerhouse Seffner Armwood a week later.

Nicholson, a former Mariner assistant coach, is charged with making the program into a forced to be reckoned with again in the county. Despite three consecutive wins where the offense has come alive, the Tritons were a longshot to get into the playoffs with regard to standards for qualifiers in previous seasons.

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Nicholson asked his young team to trust the process. Next season, Mariner will return 16 of 22 starters and the Tritons will have playoff experience.

"The winning is a result of the culture shift. They see that all this is starting to pay off. And it is infectious,” Nicholson said. 

Also, in 5A, once-storied programs Estero (2-4) and Cape Coral are playoff bound and one of them will get their first playoff victory in quite some time because they’ll be playing each other in a play-in game Nov. 13 with a trip to a regional quarterfinal on the line. 

“To be playing in Florida on Nov. 20 would be a pretty special thing,” Estero coach Darren Nelson said.

The Wildcats are the only Lee public school to have ever played in a state championship game, and have eight playoff appearances and a 9-8 postseason record. Their last appearance came in 2015.

"We're viewing it as a huge opportunity,” Nelson said. “We drew a great draw, not in terms of who we play, but playing at home. We're looking at it as an opportunity to play in the playoffs and do something that hasn't been done at Estero in a long time."

Estero will host Cape Coral in a Class 5A play-in game on Nov. 13. It's the Wildcats first postseason berth since 2015. When the Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors voted to push back the season more than a month to Sept. 3 it gave all of its member schools the chance to opt into the state series.

Cape Coral has been trying to restart its program, which has nine all-time playoff appearances with the last in 2014, under coach Dale More for the last few seasons. The Seahawks, who played East Lee County on Thursday, are 1-15 over the last two years pending Thursday night's game, but four of their last games this season have come down to the final drive, including a 21-16 loss to Estero on Oct. 16.

“A win next week would be a huge step forward for our program,” More said. “We’re going to see how far we’ve come.”

Nelson admits his team “stole” a victory over Cape in Week 7 by recovering a late fumble and scoring with 10 seconds left in the Seahawks’ final home game of the season. He expects to face a motivated Cape team.

"They probably should have beat us. They probably should have beat a few other teams,” Nelson said. “They're not a team you can take lightly."

In the 6A bracket, a pair of once-dominant Lee and Collier programs will get the chance to advance their programs, while a pair of up-and-coming teams make their return to the postseason after long layoffs.

Island Coast (4-3), which is making its first playoff appearance since 2014, will travel to Golden Gate (1-5), which made its only regional playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012, in a play-in game Friday.

The Gators made a few regional final appearances under former coaches Joe Bowen and Wayne Blair. However, the program was 9-40 from 2015-2019 and is on its fourth coach in five years. Current coach Elgin Hicks has proven he may be the right man for the job as the Gators have their highest win total in six years. 

Golden Gate coach Nick Bigica guided the Titans to a 4-6 record last season, keeping his team in playoff contention until the very end of the regular season.

Lely (2-4) made its first playoff appearance in five years last season when then-first-year coach J.J. Everage led the team to a 6-5 season, including a 47-7 regional quarterfinal loss Fort Lauderdale Dillard. 

Everage said the Trojans are working toward qualifying for the postseason every year. Lely, which will host Ida Baker (4-3) in a play-in game next week, has made 14 playoff appearances and is 3-14 all-time in the postseason.

“For us, it’s one foundation block at a time,” Everage said.

Having sent 15 of 23 seniors to play at the college level last season, Everage said every playoff game is another chance for his players to add film for college recruiters.

And, back-to-back playoff appearances for the Trojans could bring an influx of talent from Collier into the program.

Lely will host Ida Baker in a Class 6A play-in game on Nov. 13. The Trojans are making their third postseason appearance in the last decade. When the Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors voted to push back the season more than a month to Sept. 3 it gave all of its member schools the chance to opt into the state series.

“Kids are thinking if I go to such-and-such a place, I have a better chance of getting to the playoffs and being seen by college recruiters,” Everage said. “We want to be one of those teams.”

After a .500 season under then-first-year coach Chuck Faucette, Baker has been trending toward the fourth playoff berth in school history with the others coming in 2009, 2013 and 2014 under former coach Brian Conn.

Everage expects his players can only benefit from playing a hungry team in an intense environment where mistakes are magnified.

“You have to understand it’s do or die. The players get an opportunity to extend the season,” he said.

In Class 7A, Riverdale (2-4) got its taste of the playoffs in 2018 after going 10-0 in the regular season before being blown out in the first round by Valrico Bloomingdale. Before that the Raiders, who will face state powerhouse Venice in a play-in game next week, hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 2010.

In Class 3A, Oasis Charter (1-7) and Bonita Springs (2-4) will compete in the playoffs for the first time in school history with the Sharks playing at Frostproof on Nov. 13 and Bonita traveling to 2019 state semifinalist Lakeland Christian on Friday.

Regardless of the outcomes or how long they last in the postseason this year, most coaches agree the experience will be invaluable. And they are grateful their seniors get to play in at least one more game in such an uncertain season.

“This is a blessing and we’re ready to take full advantage,” Nicholson said.