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Academy at the Lakes football coach hangs up his whistle

After 43 years of coaching, John Castelamare is calling it quits … again. Mostly known for his time spent coaching at Wesley Chapel High, he has coached football at Academy at the Lakes since 2010. He started with a six-man squad and grew it to an eight-man team in four years.

Jeff Odom | Special to the Times

After 43 years of coaching, John Castelamare is calling it quits … again. Mostly known for his time spent coaching at Wesley Chapel High, he has coached football at Academy at the Lakes since 2010. He started with a six-man squad and grew it to an eight-man team in four years.

Throughout a seemingly endless career, the thought of one day reaching retirement rarely crossed John Castelamare's mind.

But after 43 years of coaching high school football in the Tampa Bay area — including 26 as the head coach at Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel and Academy at the Lakes — Castelamare knew the time to leave the game he loved would eventually arrive.

In the spring, it finally did.

After finishing up a practice session at AATL one afternoon, Castelamare followed the same routine he had for many years: lock everything up, leave the field and make the commute from Land O'Lakes to his Port Richey home in time to be in his easy chair around 8:30 p.m.

But on this night, the exhaustion was overwhelming.

"Doggone, I'm tired," he recalled grumbling to himself.

In that fleeting moment, Castelamare decided he was ready to put away the playbook for good.

"I just knew it was the right time," said Castelamare, 65, who officially stepped away July 7.

• • •

After playing college football at Nebraska, Castelamare, a New Jersey native, moved to Tampa and began coaching in 1971 as an assistant at Madison Junior High, then took a similar position at Leto High soon after.

His first opportunity to be a head coach came in 1985 when Ridgewood named him its second coach in school history.

With a limited talent pool, Castelamare never won more than five games in 12 years and was let go after the Rams finished 0-10 in 1996.

Suddenly, Castelamare's career was in limbo. He questioned if he would ever find another position.

Castelamare got the answer as Wesley Chapel picked him to start its program when the school opened in 1999.

As construction crews put the finishing touches on the school, Castelamare and his assistants — including current Pasco High coach Tom McHugh — went to work laying the foundation for the football team.

"I didn't even have a school yet," Castelamare quipped. "We didn't even have a field or anything, because they were still building it."

Things started slowly for Wesley Chapel, which finished 1-9 in its inaugural season and 5-5 in Year 2. But Castelamare's belief that the team could succeed never wavered.

He was right.

Using his run-heavy, wing-T offense, Castelamare guided Wesley Chapel to its first district championship in 2001 and two more in '03 and '04.

While he was ecstatic at the success, Castelamare said maintaining it was tough.

"I'll tell you something, that was the hardest thing to do," he said. "I don't care who we played. I don't care if the team came in there at 0-7. They gave us fits, because we were supposed to win it and then they'd play their hearts out and try to beat us. We had to practice for everything."

Castelamare spent five more years at Wesley Chapel, where he molded the likes of current Oakland Raiders receiver Greg Jenkins and Florida Gators fullback Hunter Joyer into stars, before being forced to step down following the 2009 season when his extension request in Pasco County's Deferred Retirement Option Program was denied by the school board.

Castelamare accepted an offer to coach at AATL, a private school that competed in a six-man league, a few months later. He led the program to two state semifinals and helped expand the team to a seven-man, then an eight-man squad in four years.

• • •

If there is anything Castelamare wants people to remember about his career, it's the discipline he demanded from his players and the heart he put into leading his teams.

From having his assistants at Wesley Chapel serve as a makeshift jury at practice to determine if a player needed to be reprimanded after acting up in class, to eating the same meal (an Ultimate Skillet) in the same booth at Village Inn more than 30 times as a tradition after every win at AATL — there was never a second Castelamare didn't enjoy.

While he will continue to teach physical education at AATL, Castelamare said he is ready to start a new chapter of his life —one he hopes will include more time with his wife, mother, two daughters and, of course, his easy chair.

"I'm going to miss (coaching). But, you know, I've been very fortunate," he said. "Now, I just get to enjoy my time. I get to go out on my boat and go fishing for a little bit and go to the gym in the morning.

"I'm really beginning to feel it now that I'm not on campus for summer workouts. And it's pretty nice. I can get used to this life."

Unforgettable

John Castelamare highlights three memorable moments from his coaching career:

Trickery beats Berkeley: In only its second season of play, Wesley Chapel hosted Berkeley Prep in 2000 for a late October showdown. With his team trailing 26-23, Castelamare sent out kicker Chase Polston to attempt a field goal to force a third overtime. Before the snap, Berkeley Prep coach Frank Sullivan called a timeout to ice him. That's when Castelamare got creative and called for a fake. On the next attempt, holder Spencer Honeycutt picked up the snap, rolled to his right and connected with Kenny Roberts Jr. for the winning 14-yard touchdown.

The three-day game: With a four-point lead and 2:41 left in the fourth quarter against Clearwater's Washburn Academy in 2011, Academy at the Lakes appeared to have a win wrapped up. Then the lights went out at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Center, and the finish had to be postponed three days. Although AATL went on to win 67-57, Castelamare said it was the strangest thing he had ever witnessed. He even made a special playbook if the situation arose again, appropriately titled 2:41.

The Iron Man: When Castelamare took his first head coaching job at Ridgewood in 1985, he wanted to create a competition that prepared his team for the rigors of a football season. During the first week of practice in the spring and fall, Castelamare's teams competed in the "Iron Man." Players were broken up into groups where they participated in a bench press, 40-yard dash, shuttle runs, over-under jump and 880 run. The winners had their names placed on a large board inside the weight room.

Academy at the Lakes football coach hangs up his whistle 07/16/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 7:57pm]

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