SEFFNER — To say Seffner Christian Academy has come a long way since introducing football four years ago would be a gross understatement.
Just how far have they come?
There may be no better example than senior Robbie Shell.
Shell went out for the team his freshman year without a down of football under his belt.
"I didn't even know the rules," he said.
During one game that inaugural season, Shell was on punt return. The ball was kicked and rolled away before Shell, thinking he was downing the ball, ran over and touched it. Since Shell made the ball live, the punting team scooped it up and ran it in for a touchdown.
"I heard about that one for years," he said. "I thought I was downing the ball because that's what you do when you're punting. I had no idea what I was doing."
He wasn't alone. Half of veteran coach Steve Lewis' 33-man roster had never played the game at any level before. The Crusaders went 2-7 that first season, including three losses by 33 points or more.
"It's crazy to look back at film from that first year," Shell said. "What a difference."
Shell, like many of the other players at Seffner Christian, has transformed from an athletic kid with no gridiron experience into a football player. He leads the Crusaders in rushing (705 yards), receiving (242) and touchdowns (15).
"It's enjoyable to see the fruits of your labor," Lewis said. "It's very gratifying seeing how far they've come."
After going 5-5 and losing in the finals of the Sunshine State Conference last season, Seffner Christian reeled off five straight wins to start 2013 and stand 5-1. The Crusaders, despite losing their first game of the season in double overtime last week, still have a shot to reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
"All I'm concerned with is Friday night," said Lewis, in his 41st season of coaching. "Win one at a time."
That's not to say Seffner Christian doesn't have plenty of room for growth. The Crusaders don't have an on-campus football field and play their games at neighboring high schools when the home team is on the road. Lewis said there are "no imminent plans" for a permanent home, but he expects it to get done one day.
"We've talked about it, but right now we're trying to add an academic building and that's our No. 1 goal right now," Lewis said. "But it will happen sooner or later."
The program's progress isn't just measured on Friday nights. SCA is beginning to attract transfers, and the Crusaders debuted a middle school program this year to ready future players.
"Now we have boys looking to transfer here that already know the game," Lewis said. "The word is getting around that hey, Seffner is playing some pretty good football. You know how word travels."
Looking at the crowd last week at Brandon, where the Crusaders played their homecoming game, it's almost hard to believe Seffner Christian didn't have a football team five years ago. The home stands were nearly filled to capacity.
"I definitely had some butterflies," Shell said. "That's the most people I've ever played in front of. You could feel the energy."
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.