Tod Creneti said this year’s Saint Stephen’s football team would create its own identity.

Coming off back-to-back Sunshine State Athletic Conference championships and after graduating a number of key players, it was clear the Falcons would not resemble the 2016 or 2017 squads.

Still, after four weeks, this year’s team is starting to take shape.RAugust 8, 2018

“We’re getting there,” the Falcons eighth-year coach said. “They’ve played physically. They’ve played together. Every week we grow a little bit. We get a little bit better. We know a little bit more about our kids and about each other. That’s the fun part of the process.”

“We lost a bunch of key players, but we’ve got new guys stepping in to just continue the tradition,” said senior linebacker Truman Carlsen, a four-year starter.

Saint Stephen’s has not slipped much from the past two seasons, when it recorded 11-1 and 10-0 championship seasons. The Falcons are 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the SSAC Coral Bay Conference heading into Friday’s game at Out-of-Door Academy (4-0, 2-0), the most important game to date on their schedule.

After going 4-6, 1-9, 2-8, 3-7 and 2-7 from 2012-16, ODA turned in a 6-2 record last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

“They’re a very good team,” Creneti said of the Thunder, whose only two losses a year ago were to Saint Stephen’s — 61-7 during the regular season and 42-0 in the second round of the playoffs. “They’ve improved year-over-year the last couple of years. You look at some of their senior kids who stepped into new roles this year and are playing great.

“They were very successful last year. People miss that. So they built a lot on that, so their confidence is high.”

The Falcons do not buy into the theory they have gone from the hunted the past two years to the hunter this year.

Despite the graduations of quarterback Fred Billy, running back Chase Brown and wide receivers Demetrius Davis and Sydney Brown, the Saint Stephen offense has been just as potent and even more balanced this season.

Operating behind a veteran offensive line of seniors Jack Peebles, Dalton Francis, Trey Bauer, Tyler Burnham and junior Dylan Davis, quarterbacks Zavier Williams and Patrick O’Keefe have thrown two touchdown passes each. D.J. Clark has rushed for six scores, Williams three on the ground and Jordy Edwards two in offensive coordinator Cord Graham’s offense.

“On offense, we’ve done a better job of balancing the running and the passing,” Creneti said. “We’re not as heavy toward the run game as we’ve been the last couple of years. That’s the biggest change.”

In Jim Phelan’s defense, Carlsen leads the way with 34 tackles, 20 solos, along with a couple of sacks. Calvin Sauerbeck (20) and Darron Robinson (19) are second and third, respectively, in tackles and Williams has picked off two passes when he plays in the defensive backfield.

“We’ve started to grow a physical brand of football,” Carlsen said. “The O-line has opened up some gaps. The defense is playing lights out, just really physical.”

“Defensively, it continues to be similar to what we’ve done, but the kids are playing at a high level on defense,” Creneti said.

Even the Falcons placekicker is firing on all cylinders — Noah LaBelle is 18-for-18 in PAT kicks and has made one of his two field-goal attempts.

The only blemish on the Falcons’ record is a 35-21 loss at Windermere Prep. Since then, Saint Stephen’s has defeated St. Petersburg Shorecrest and St. Petersburg Northside Christian by a combined 103-7.

“The mentality is just focusing on one game at a time. We’ve got one-game seasons,” Carlsen said. “That’s the way we’ve looked at it since we lost to Windermere.”

The winner of Friday’s Saint Stephen’s-ODA game, which kicks off at 7 p.m.. would be the front-runner for the Coral Bay Conference title and likely receive a top seed in the SSAC tournament.

“Absolutely, we look forward to playing,” Creneti said. “When you are a high school football coach, they guarantee you 10 games a year. We know this is a division game, and that makes it very important.”