While the Out-of-Door Academy football team was working its way through the spring season and summer workouts, Thunder defensive coordinator Chris Hill thought his unit might be shaping up into something special.
ODA’s defense has surpassed even its own expectations and turned into a dominant force. After giving up just 15 points in their first two games, the Thunder shut out Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic 33-0 heading into Friday night’s Sunshine State Athletic Conference — Coral Division opener at Bradenton Christian.
“This has been building for a couple of years,” Hill said. “We’ve seen some improvement. We’ve been running the same scheme for a couple of years. The culture of our team has really set the tone, so everyone is coming together and playing hard.”
Several ODA defenders said they play as “a brotherhood” which makes sense given the fact most of them have been together for at least two years. Some have played together even longer, rising through the local youth football ranks.
“We know each other well, we hang out a lot outside of school and that helps us know each other and how we are,” said junior free safety Colin Castro, who is one of ODA’s captains. “We never give up, no matter who we are against. We play the same against every team ... and that’s never going to change.”
The Thunder defense, a 3-3-5 system with three linemen, three linebackers and down safeties, showed signs of what could be against Fort Myers Canterbury in their regular season opener. On one particular play, the ODA defense had 10 of its 11 players in on one tackle. That swarming presence continued when they allowed 219 yards of total offense in a 41-0 win over Tampa Bayshore Christian.
Hill described his defense in one word: tenacious.
“We’ve got a minimum of five or six guys that get to the ball on every play,” Hill said. “When that happens, you’re not going to give up a lot of yards.”
Hill said that his defense really doesn’t have any stars, but it plays more as a cohesive unit with. Tucker Harris is a run-stuffer up front while two-way player Castro fills up the alley in the middle of the field at free safety.
Castro’s teammates call him a general on the field with good reason. He’s the one that makes sure that the defenders are lined up in the right spots before the snap, which he does from his prime viewing spot behind the line of scrimmage.
“I want to make sure I know what I’m doing at the start of the game, so I study the film hard and tell everyone how to play their positions whenever I can,” said Castro, who also rushed for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns — including a 99-yarder that stands as longest play in ODA history — in last week’s 33-0 win over Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic.
Nolan Lewellen has three interceptions in three games. The sophomore credits the Thunder defensive line for creating pressure, which has led to the picks.
“The ball has just been there for me,” Lewellen said. “We put a lot of work in during the preseason and we thought we were going to be good. We were just ready to get out there and see what we were made of. It turns out we’ve been pretty good so far.”
Sebastian Frias, a junior defensive end who leads the Thunder with three sacks, said the team’s hustle-first mentality has been what’s made them so strong so early in the season.
“Every single player we have is devoted to where they need to go and we all know our assignments,” he said. “But more importantly, we hustle toward the ball. We had a six-man gang tackle in our last game.”
The future is looking even brighter for the Thunder defense. Hill said several freshmen, most notably Connor Pope, Austin Goins and Grady Paxton, have come off the bench to make plays in relief.
“I’ve never seen so many freshmen step up,” Hill said. “If somebody is dinged up or needs a break, the freshmen come in and we seem to keep rolling.”
The Thunder already have their Sept. 28 date with Saint Stephen’s circled on their calendar. ODA has never beaten the two-time defending SSAC state champion Falcons, a team that had won 22 straight games until last week’s 35-21 setback to Windermere Prep.
“Beating them would be amazing,” sophomore Tanner Fairchild said. “That’s our goal.”
But to make that matchup more meaningful, the Thunder must top one of their main rivals to continue the best start in program history.
“It’s always a dogfight against BCS and we can’t take them lightly,” Lewellen said. “We’re just going to go out there, play hard and try and shut them down early.”