PALM HARBOR — He lost his best running back shortly after getting hired at Palm Harbor University last year, and everyone said that was going to really hurt.
But PHU went 7-5, made the playoffs and won the first postseason game in school history.
After that fabulous debut, he lost his best player — maybe the school’s best player ever — when quarterback Billy Pavlock graduated along with about 90 percent of the offense, and that was really — and this time we’re serious — going to hurt.
But PHU is 3-0. Matt LePain just shrugs.
When everyone doubted, he smiled. When people wrote off the Hurricanes, he laughed. When everyone forgot to include his team in preseason rankings, he high-fived his assistant coaches.
“Oh, I love that,” said LePain, the former defensive coordinator at Largo. “You don’t understand how much I love that. If I had my way, we’d stay under the radar.”
PHU, home of state champion swim teams and arguably the area’s premier soccer dynasties, is now on the fringe of the Tampa Bay football radar.
It sits there the same way it sat there in 2011, unbeaten after three games with Clearwater Central Catholic up next.
Last year, the Marauders handed PHU its worst loss of the season, a 20-7 pancake.
The Hurricanes rebounded, but never completely. They beat the bad teams, lost to the good ones.
That makes Friday’s game another one of those “biggest games in school history.”
The other biggest games in school history? Most recently, all losses.
Two to East Lake last season, by a combined eight points.
One to Countryside, an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead slipping away.
One to Tarpon Springs, by a touchdown.
And, uh, that one to CCC, where the resurrected and rambunctious Hurricanes were, for one week, put back in their place.
LePain watched his old team, Largo, beat the stuffing out of Countryside last week with great pride.
Rick Rodriguez called it a signature win. LePain nodded.
“We need one of those,” he said.
Monday at practice, LePain surveyed his Hurricanes, in a rare moment of tranquility for the fiery coach.
He likes what he sees.
Quarterback Tyler Kaminski has exceeded expectations, especially as a leader.
PHU has one of the best offensive line coaches in the area, Chris Carothers, molding another spunky, if not undersized, group that has marvelously sprung Kaminski and the running backs for big yards.
The defensive line is young, the linebackers are fierce. He likes his defensive backs, especially his coach on the field, free safety Tyler Ruth.
“We have some talent,” he says.
There’s no flash to this group. No pizzazz. Not a single superstar.
It’s just a football team, a group of 35 kids who have each other’s back that LePain has convinced to play above their talents.
“We put our trust in LePain,” said Kaminski, who has four passing touchdowns and two more running. “He has brought in a whole new attitude, a winning attitude. And intensity. It’s hard to describe, but there’s something about him we all love.”
A former offensive lineman at Countryside, LePain got his start in coaching at the age of 27 on Kelly Scott’s staff. He led the O-linemen at Bloomingdale.
First season, 1997: 0-10.
Scott went back to Lake Wales and took LePain with him. But Scott, the defensive coordinator, took him as a line coach.
And from the moment LePain dissected his first offense in an effort to exploit it, he was hooked.
At Largo, he had some of the best defenses in Pinellas County for a decade. He was an avid film watcher, plugging his ideas into the computer until it spit out a game plan.
“He never wanted to be outflanked,” Rodriguez said. “He was never going to be outworked.”
That hasn’t changed.
Monday at practice, he proudly pulled out a white three-ring binder and flipped through page after page of CCC plays, 55 in all. He scribbled down tendencies on the first page.
“I love going up against (CCC coach) John Davis,” LePain said. “He’s going to make me work.”
LePain thinks he can always be better, and he instills that in his team. PHU is 3-0, but LePain asks, “Who have we played?”
“I’m not being negative, but I want these guys to think about how good they could be,” he said.
Senior linebacker Quentin Cumings, who led the team with 99 tackles last season, has helped spur the defense to double-digit sacks already.
But this week, Cumings, coming off an eight-tackle, two-sack performance, walked into LePain’s office and said: “I missed four tackles. And I dropped an interception.”
Cumings laughs recalling the moment, because this is what coach LePain has done to him.
No chest-beating after a great game. No reveling in past glory. Just a quick reflection of how good the game could have been, then a week’s worth of hard work on the practice field hoping for perfection.
“He has definitely rubbed off on me,” Cumings said.
And for PHU, that’s a good thing.