BROOKSVILLE — Nature Coast currently rides a 22-game regular-season win streak, but first-year football coach Cory Johns was not around for any of those wins. Neither was most of his coaching staff. This is an entirely new campaign with new obstacles ahead.
"We know all about the expectations," Johns said, "but that's part of the reason I took this job. I want there to be expectations."
This era will not begin with an easy opponent. Nature Coast heads to IMG Academy on Friday night to open the 2017 season.
IMG, located in Bradenton, is a youth sports academy that focuses on the development of potential collegiate student-athletes.
The results have been astounding on the football front, with the program sporting a 37-3 mark since its inaugural 2013 season with top five finishes in the national rankings each of the past two years. Among the Ascenders' alumni is current Florida State starting quarterback Deondre Francois.
The success has bred more interest in the program, so much interest that the school will be fielding a second varsity team for the first time. The much-heralded program now features the Blue Ascenders, the staple from years past coached by Kevin Wright, and the White Ascenders, coached by Kenny Stills.
Stills served as the running backs coach for the Blue Ascenders last season. He is a former NFL running back with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings and brings a wealth of knowledge to the game, both as a player and coach. He won two World Bowl titles in NFL Europe as an assistant coach with the Frankfurt Galaxy.
The abundance of talented players on campus forced the hand of IMG officials. With more than 100 athletes looking to play football, there were not many options. The quality of athletes was too good for a junior varsity roster, so the school worked on creating a second team and second schedule.
"We don't know much about (IMG's team)," Johns said. "(Coach Stills and I) talked, and we know they play 4-3 (formation) on defense and a spread offense."
The White Ascenders will welcome Nature Coast to Bradenton, and make no mistake, the Sharks are still one of the best teams around.
Johns' game plan features returning junior Mike Weston, who carried the ball for 737 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first varsity campaign last year. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, he will be a force between the tackles and should see most of the work in the backfield throughout the season.
Another big plus for the coaching staff is the return of so many strong offensive linemen from last season's roster, including Louis Miele, Grantt Beckford and Jesus Torres. Miele is 6 feet 8, 315 pounds and looks like he could be the next big recruit to come out of Nature Coast before it is all over.
Friday night will be a good test for the Sharks. With an entirely new coaching staff other than assistant Rudy Story, the players may still be adjusting to expectations. Sophomore quarterback Fabian Burnett enters his first year as the starter and will be counted on to deliver a running threat from under center like predecessor Brian Haygood did the past two seasons.
"We have to show up and ball," Johns said. "If we do that, we'll be good."