BRANDON — With his players kneeling around him in the post-practice huddle, Brandon coach John Lima asked, “Feels good to be 4-0, doesn’t it?”
The Eagles, who will put their undefeated start on the line Friday night against Sickles (3-1), didn’t respond by hooting and hollering, standing up and shouting or even applauding. Instead, they offered a measured, unified “Yes sir.”
On the field, in practice and in the classroom, Lima and his coaching staff have sought to improve the team’s discipline, and the resulting maturation process has helped Brandon make the leap from back-to-back 3-7 seasons to 4-0 for the first time since 1985.
“We’ve always been a disciplined team in the past, but we started to crack down a lot this year because, in the past, we’ve kind of let it get away or swept it under the rug a little bit,” senior running back Darius Lee said. “The coaches expect more out of the players and expect them to step up. We want to try to get the program where the coaches don’t have to say anything and the players step up.”
The team looks much like it did in 2008 and ’09, but Lima said several factors have made the recent success possible, including the balance of his players developing and coaches coming together as a staff.
He credited defensive coordinator Tim Jones and offensive line coach Steve Hopkins for the most direct on-the-field improvements, noted the benefits of the team’s after-school study halls for keeping the Eagles eligible and stressed the importance of team discipline. Lima benched two starters last week for disciplinary reasons, and the coaches regularly meet with a leadership group of about 25 players to foster better communication.
Brandon has 21 seniors and 22 juniors who have been playing together since JV, a far cry from the Eagles’ nine seniors last year and six in 2008. In addition to keeping his players eligible, Lima said the study hall, held three times a week during the season and four times a week in the offseason, has helped them focus and allowed coaches to keep a closer watch on players’ school work.
“That accountability, if we hear anything, we’re going to get on them,” Lima said. “They know that they’re going to hear from us daily or weekly on their grades, so they’ve got to keep up with it.”
Even with the demanding practices and high expectations off the field, senior linebacker Shawn Council said the team maintains a family atmosphere. Lima attributed that to how long many of the players have been together and the early-season success they’ve enjoyed — something that, given the Eagles’ somewhat favorable district of TBT, Wharton and Freedom, could continue into the postseason for the first time since 2007.
“This team is really close. Coming from spring drills, we decided ourselves that we’re tired of being the stepchild of Hillsborough County for most teams,” Council said. “We’re tired of having losing seasons in back-to-back years, so we took it upon ourselves.”
“When you work that hard at something and you’re together all the time, you’re going to develop some great bonds,” Lima added. “The other part is winning. When you win, it makes it special. It makes it more important. They want to keep it going, so that brings them together, too.”