TAMPA — The afternoon gusts whip hard against the 31 bodies — including JV call-ups — practicing for Chamberlain on this chilly Tuesday.
On the home bench, the team’s top rusher and primary Division-I prospect shrouds himself in a blanket as he soaks his sore left ankle in a bucket of ice water. The quarterback has a protective boot on his right ankle.
“The dirty 30,” says Ronnie Scott, the FAU-bound two-way senior. “These are the people that didn’t quit on us, the people that didn’t abandon ship.”
Eight games in, the Chiefs appear weather beaten. Turns out, they’re weather resistant. For the first time all year, they actually have the proverbial wind to their backs. Gale-force momentum, if you will.
“It’s character, man,” first-year coach D.J. Mayo likes to say.
Chamberlain, winner of four games on the field in the previous three years, is one more victory — or a Gaither loss — from evolving into the area’s feel-good story of 2012.
In a trying, transitional year in which players have been carted off by injury or run off by coaches, the Chiefs (4-4) find themselves needing to only defeat Steinbrenner on Friday to clinch no worse than a three-way tie for the Class 7A, District 7 title.
If Gaither loses to Tampa Bay Tech, the Chiefs are in regardless of whether they defeat Steinbrenner.
It’s a scenario that seemed outlandish only a few months back, when Mayo swooped in from Port Orange with all the subtlety of a jackhammer and began remodeling a beleaguered program.
“I would’ve told them they’re crazy,” said Scott, when asked his reaction if someone had suggested a playoff berth in the preseason. “The way last year ended and this year started, I would’ve told them they were crazy.”
Peer through Mayo’s prism, and crazy quickly evolves into plausible.
Of all the county’s offseason vacancies, Chamberlain — a playoff fixture before coach Billy Turner’s retirement following the 2008 season — was the one he wanted. It was just a matter of keeping Chamberlain’s kids at home.
Which isn’t to say some home renovation wasn’t needed.
Immediately, Mayo stressed accountability and discipline, regardless of a player’s stats or stature. Perspiration, and lots of it, became the penalty for unsatisfactory grades. Depth took a hit as a result; Chamberlain had roughly 45 kids out during the spring.
“We’re going to do the right thing regardless of who leaves,” Mayo said, “because I’m here to build a program and not a team.”
Yet for all the attrition, Mayo still believed in his remaining talent. Against a schedule with five potential playoff teams, the Chiefs are only 14 points from being 6-2. This despite five prominent players missing 15 total games for various reasons.The only embarrassment: a 49-0 loss at Durant, when seven defensive starters were missing and leading rusher Xavier Johnson was benched for disciplinary reasons.
The morning after that loss, the Chiefs convened at the school, played dodge ball and dined on supermarket fried chicken and iced tea. Johnson later apologized to the team and returned. Chamberlain is 2-0 since.
“I think definitely (the turning point) was when (Mayo) disciplined Xavier and he showed that nobody was too special,” Scott said. “It kind of showed everybody that we’re all equal and that we can all come together and play football.”
The galvanization occurred at Gaither’s expense. With Johnson (94 carries, 684 yards) and Scott (286 total yards, five interceptions) watching from the sideline with ankle injuries, the Chiefs mounted an 84-yard two-minute drill to rally for a 19-17 win.
Converted running back Dakarai Highsmith, who took no snaps at quarterback in the preseason, engineered the drive, which ended with Jermaine Gilyard’s 8-yard TD on a double-reverse on the final play.
“We’ve just preached doing the right things since February, and I think Friday you saw the result of that,” Mayo said. “Nobody panicked when guys went out. Next man up, and we just did what we had to do.”
Another gust sweeps over Billy Turner Field as Mayo speaks. The winds of change are howling.
“It’s like a big ship,” Mayo said. “Once Chamberlain’s right, it’s going to be trouble.”
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com.