RUSKIN — Sitting in the equipment room Monday at Lennard High School, Matt Kitchie talked for a while about Leto, the place he spent the past six years as head football coach.
He started by saying he "absolutely loved" his time at Leto, a statement that might surprise many folks. After all, he won only one game on the field and lost 59, often by 50 or more points.
Yes, he said there were many scary bus rides, like the ones to play against nationally-ranked Armwood, loaded with major Division I-A talent.
In contrast, Kitchie said before the season he literally had to teach some of his first-year players how to "put on their pads," and that in his six years at Leto he had one Division I-A signee (a kicker).
Admittedly, he said that sometimes before practice on Mondays he wondered if his players would show up after suffering a brutal beating the previous Friday night — only to face another beating on the Friday ahead.
But then … there they were.
All of his players.
"We had to be there for Coach Kitchie and for each other," said Garrick Pimienta, who played for Leto in 2011, Kitchie's first season with the Falcons. "We knew Coach Kitchie cared about us and that made us care about him. We were a close group. We were like a family. We had to be close because we were catching it from all sides."
Kitchie said he was "amazed" by his players at Leto and that, "in all those years I never lost one of those core players (about 20 every year). They never stopped playing hard. They never quit. …They inspired me. They made me better."
He suddenly recalled a bus ride in 2014 back from Armwood, which had just beaten the Falcons 62-3, an ending his players were "celebrating."
"Because we had scored on them," Kitchie said. "(Armwood) had shut out almost everybody that season, so when we scored that field goal, it was a huge deal for us. We celebrated little victories like that. It's all about perspective."
Work. Work. Work.
Kitchie never stopped.
His locker room was always clean, his field house always in order, his players' grades on the rise.
He thought victories might follow. But they never did. Leto's demographics, coupled with consistently brutal schedules, made it nearly impossible to win. Going to an independent schedule also wasn't a viable option because Leto was a Class 7A public school, which made scheduling nearly impossible.
So he stuck it out. He hung in there. He kept helping his players become better people.
"Then after six years (at Leto) I thought I'm ready for another challenge," Kitchie said. "When the Lennard job came open I went for it, and when I got that phone call to say that I had gotten a job it was, well, the greatest phone call I've ever had in my life. Wow. I am so grateful for this opportunity. I love it so much here. I see so much potential here. I am so excited."
Lennard, which went 2-8 last season, does look like a program ready to take off, particularly because the area around the school is one of the fastest-growing in Hillsborough County.
At practice Monday, more than 100 Longhorns were running around and tackling each other.
Kitchie, 39, was right in the middle of it, growling and teaching and grinning, giving it 100 percent, just like he always has.
"I've never wanted to be anything but a high school football coach," said Kitchie, who learned from one of the best when he played for state championship teams in 1993 and '94 as a backup quarterback for Bradenton Southeast under legendary coach Paul Maechtle. "At Leto I never thought about doing anything else. I never want to do anything else."
As for winning, he proved he could do it in two years at Land O'Lakes where he went 17-3 before being let go after an off-the-field incident involving starting quarterback Stevie Weatherford.
Kitchie was hired at Leto a few months later, where he continued earning respect from his players and fellow coaches, who this past school year, despite Leto's 0-10 record, voted him the county's coach of the year.
"Nobody was more deserving of that award than Matt Kitchie," Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia said. "Every time we played Leto, he always had his players prepared properly. It was just that he didn't have enough bullets in his gun. To hang in there the way he did, he deserves all the credit in the world."
Now, how good will Lennard be under Kitchie?
"All I know is that we'll give it everything we have," said Kitchie, as a steady stream of players came to him for ice, insurance forms, to drop off dirty uniforms for washing, ask about getting a ride to practice and so on.
"I have a great feeling about it. I think we can make great things happen here."