VALRICO — If Plant and Armwood have been the crown jewels of area high school football in recent years, Bloomingdale's program would be considered, well, cubic zirconium.
The Bulls have yet to muster a winning season and reached .500 just once in the school's history.
"These kids know what they're up against," head coach Jason Stokes said. "They want to be the first team to break the streak, but it starts with a belief they can do it."
The responsibility for getting the Bulls to believe a winning season is possible falls on Stokes, who took over the program in January. Stokes, who has no head coaching experience at the varsity level, said instilling that attitude into his players has been the main objective.
"We're working on getting these kids to believe in themselves and have an attitude that they can do it," he said. "It takes time, but you have to have the confidence in yourself first and foremost."
Count Stokes as one of those who do believe the Bulls can reach the more favorable side of .500.
"I'm a competitor," he said. "You read about teams all the time who turn it around. The recipe is about the same: work hard in the offseason, prepare and be tenacious."
Stokes said this summer has been important for the Bulls, a 2-8 team last season. "We've been challenging them in the weight room to push their bodies to the limit," he said. "There's been a lot of competition and that's been very positive."
Stokes, Riverview's defensive coordinator the past four seasons, led the Sharks' junior varsity team to an undefeated season in 2003 after coming from Queens, N.Y. Although Bloomingdale's track record may not be pretty, Stokes is using it as a motivational tool.
"We do talk about it a lot and these kids want to make history," Stokes said.
Bloomingdale lost 28-0 to Brandon in the spring jamboree, but part of that can be attributed to Stokes' new offensive and defensive schemes.
"I was upset we lost, but it takes time with new systems," he said. "It's a work in progress."
But Stokes will be his own harshest critic. "I'm putting pressure on them every day to get better," he said. "But I put a lot of pressure on myself. Life is all about pressure and how you handle it."
Can the Bulls' new front man and his tenacious approach make people forget about Bloomingdale's less-than-sparkling past?
"I tell them all the time," Stokes said. "Pressure produces diamonds."
Another new coach taking over in the fall will be Spoto's Dale Caparaso, who was Brandon's defensive line coach last season. Caparaso brings a wealth of experience to Spoto, which will be in its second year of varsity football. Caparaso's resume includes 25 years of head coaching experience, including a four-year stint at Pasco (20-21) prior to joining Brandon's staff.
You're back as a head coach after a year as a coordinator. What was it like to not be in complete charge last season?
You know what, I really got back to teaching football. As a head coach you wear a lot of hats, so I enjoyed concentrating on fundamentals.
That said, were you ready to get back to what you know best?
When I took the spot at Brandon, they knew I aspired to be a head coach again. Like most head coaches, I'm a workaholic and being a head coach was my goal. But Brandon gave a great opportunity and I thank them for that. What is this team's strength?
Speed, speed, speed. It's probably the fastest team that I've ever had.
We have a ton of guys who run in the 4.5-4.6 (40-yard dash) range and obviously, that's going to be very important for us.
Who will be the toughest team in the district?
I think based on last year and what they have returning, Palmetto and Sarasota Booker are the elite two. Jesuit is no slouch either.
What has been the biggest challenge since taking over?
Getting these kids to believe they can compete at this level.
We're a fairly new school, but we're not young. A junior is a junior whether you're here or at another school. I think we had 22 seniors and 19 juniors at offseason workouts and so far they're all buying into the work ethic and confidence we're trying to instill.
Brandon Wright, Times correspondent