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TAMPA — The prep coaching career of Tony Calvo began essentially the same way his prep playing career ended: with his foot planted in a perilous place.
Reared in Tampa’s Black Watch soccer program, Calvo was playing a club match the summer before his freshman year at Jesuit when he stepped on a sprinkler head and blew out his right knee.
Similarly, upon taking the Sickles coaching job four years ago, Calvo didn’t realize what he had stepped into. Or as senior defender Tyler Deming recalls, “We had a bunch of characters on that team.”
“God, my first season, it was miserable,” Calvo recalled before Wednesday’s practice. “We ended up with like, 25 guys rostered and before we went into districts I ended up keeping only 13. …It just never had any kind of a true structure.”
Such was the proverbial hand Calvo initially was dealt, one rife with red cards (four, by his recollection. Yet within that surviving baker’s dozen, Calvo found a five-player nucleus of freshmen that would propel the Gryphons to unprecedented heights.
Sickles (14-1-3) is 24th in the latest ESPN Rise Fab 50 national rankings. The Gryphons have as many red cards as defeats, and according to their 36-year-old coach, 29 of their 32 players possess a GPA of 3.0 or better.
And leading the way is the quintet that endured the turbulent beginning of the Calvo era.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” senior goalkeeper Brandon Stout said.
Stout has allowed four goals in nearly 1,000 minutes in the net, an astounding stat to which Deming and fellow defenders Gil Davis (a University of Tampa commitment) and Eric Krukar have contributed mightily.
Midfielder Boris Simeunovic, the fifth member who is leaning heavily toward Florida Southern, leads the team in goals (13) and points (39).
“That freshman group,” Calvo said, “has been what we’ve worked on since the beginning.”
Throw in promising youngsters such as freshman center midfielder Michael Bajza (11 goals, seven assists), and Calvo possesses arguably the most balanced offense and daunting back line in the county.
Three winters before, the only thing daunting about Calvo’s program was the figurative fires he seemed to be perpetually fighting. He recalls seniors skipping tryouts, players busted for on-campus pranks, even a transfer epidemic.
“My first year was, ‘Why isn’t so-and-so coming to practice?’ ” said Calvo, who coaches year round in the nearby HC United club program.
“And it would be like, ‘He’s in out-of-school suspension.’ And I’m like, ‘Well why did he get suspended?’ And they would say, ‘Well, he had a can of paint and was playing around the school splattering paint all over the floor.’ ”
So Calvo added a fresh coat of accountability. Anyone with a GPA of 2.0-2.4 was required to get a day of tutoring and turn in one progress report per week. Those in the 2.5-2.9 range had to get a progress report signed every other week. Anyone with a 3.0 or better was clear.
Discipline problems were addressed not only in school, but on the practice field. Translation: Calvo ran some kids. But surprisingly, he ran no one off.
“There were always good players that came to Sickles,” said Calvo, who manages a series of medical clinics by day.
“HC United has great players coming out of there. Then it would seem like their junior year they would go to a different school. …We’ve been able to retain almost every single one.”
And in the process, get the Gryphons on dominant footing.
Photo: Sickles players, from left, Tyler Deming, Eric Krukar, Brandon Stout, Boris Simeunovic and Gil Davis