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Column: No better fit for Hudson than Kantor

For a time, Hudson couldn't find anyone to coach its football team.

The Cobras had lost 22 straight games, the roster had dwindled to a baker's dozen or so, and no one seemed to care much for the task of reversing all of that.

One ad looking for a coach had to be reposted, and another didn't draw the interest, or candidates, the school was really hoping for.

When Hudson finally found its guy, he declined.

Found another guy, and he wouldn't return phone calls.

That's where Hudson was 18 months ago.

Now, it is here, on a Thursday afternoon, going through a walk-through and preparing for a playoff game.

• • •

The Cobras head into today's first-round playoff game with a 6-4 record, and will travel to Lakewood to take on a highly touted Spartans team.

Coach Mark Kantor says there could be no happier human beings on this planet than his Cobras are right now.

After an 0-22 run, all the losses by an average of 30 points, Hudson will play its most significant game in almost a decade.

They got here, Kantor says, the old-fashioned way, "I just didn't think it would happen this fast."

The Cobras wrapped up 2012 by splitting their last four games, and one of the losses was by a single point as a field-goal attempt floated wide in the final seconds, but something had already begun to take hold.

"I thought the future was bright, but being able to transform them into believing they can win, that's hard," Kantor said. "You have to break that barrier. Last year they thought they could but didn't believe it. This year, they believed it."

While new coaches may fall in love with fancy spread offenses and complicated pro-level defensive schemes, he focused on fine-tuning his special teams, toughening up the defense and deciding the offense would ride behind the big boys — Grayson Stover (6-foot-6, 270 pounds), Alex Munson (6-0, 255), Kameron DeWitt (6-5, 285), Chris Campos (6-0, 240) and Robbie McCarty (6-2, 250).

The Cobras were able to roll through the early part of a soft schedule. They won their first three district games, clinching a playoff berth, averaging more than 230 yards a game. Noah Siegrist ran for more than 1,300 this season, Zach Russell became a valuable dual threat with more than 400 rushing and receiving, and quarterback Joey Caruso has had a breakout season with more than 1,000 yards of total offense.

To convince his players all this was possible, Kantor had them watch video of the 2005 team, which won a district title, 10 games, two playoff games and captured the imagination of Hudson.

Assistant coaches from that staff and are now with Kantor — Keith Newton, Rob Mahler, Vince Ferlita — drove the point home.

"We're even running the same type of offense they ran then," Kantor said. And when the coaches point at the screen, they say "these kids are not any different than you are."

For a team looking for a resurrection, it has found the perfect match in its coach.

Back in 2012, Kantor was a defensive coach for Wharton, but only because Gaither had fired him as head coach after the 2010 season after nine seasons, despite three straight playoff appearances.

He applied for head coach openings at Land O'Lakes, Mitchell, Ridgewood, East Bay, Freedom, Brandon, Chamberlain and a school in Georgia, but no one hired him.

"I almost started to think, this isn't going to happen," Kantor said.

But Hudson needed a coach, and Kantor needed a head coaching job, and despite some initial reservations because the program was in such disrepair, a three-hour meeting with Newton — the athletic director — over sweet teas at a Beef 'O' Brady's convinced him to come back to a place where he had been an assistant from 1999-2002.

"I always had a rule, that I'd never go back to a place I had already been," Kantor said. "But I remembered it as a special place. And coming here, you're saying to yourself, rebuild this and continue to move it forward and be competitive and successful, and that tells you what kind of football coach you are."

A pretty darned good one, as it turned out.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

Class 5A: Hudson (6-4)

at Lakewood (7-3)

Next opponent: Tarpon Springs or Anclote

Story line: Hudson won only four games in the past three seasons combined before making the playoffs this season. Lakewood is in the playoffs a second straight season. The Cobras are happy to be in the postseason; the Spartans expected it.

Key stats: Lakewood has not given up more than 23 points in a game this season. … Hudson's 2,229 rushing yards are the most by a Cobras team since 2005.

Key players: Lakewood's Donterio Fowler has amped up his ground game recently (800 yards, nine TDs) and also has a kickoff return and is a punt return threat. Jocqui Ellison is a threat to throw, run and catch, and has more than 500 yards receiving and rushing). … Hudson's Noah Siegrist anchors the ground game (217 carries, 1,302 yards, 11 TDs), while quarterback Joey Caruso (72-of-134, 963 yards passing, seven TDs) is also a threat to run, with eight rushing TDs.

Did you know? Lakewood has produced several NFL players, but its playoff history is not great. The Spartans are 3-14 all-time in playoff games dating to 1980. Hudson is 2-4 all-time in the playoffs, with both wins coming in 2005.

Mary Kenney's pick: Lakewood 35-7. Hudson's turnaround is impressive, and the Cobras could build one of the county's most powerful programs over the next few years. They're not there yet, though.

Derek LaRiviere's pick: Lakewood 49-7. The Cobras have made big strides in the two seasons since Mark Kantor took over, but the Spartans are a powerhouse that will make Hudson's first postseason appearance since 2009 a rough one.

Column: No better fit for Hudson than Kantor 11/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, November 14, 2013 10:52pm]

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