RIVERVIEW — Dale Caparaso has gone through a lot in his lengthy coaching career.
There have been plenty of wins (four Massachusetts state football titles), plenty of losses (Spoto hasn't reached the playoffs since 2008) and a stint as a Brandon assistant coach after being let go at Pasco after a pair of tumultuous seasons.
But has he ever been through anything quite like this Spoto season?
"I don't think so," the 33-year veteran said. "It's been pretty different to say the least."
It's rare that a seven-loss team makes the playoffs but that's exactly where Spoto finds itself when the team travels to Lake Wales tonight to play in the 5A region quarterfinal at 7:30.
The Spartans (3-7) dropped their first seven games of the season before defeating district rival Middleton 24-0 on Oct. 25. But thanks to a three-team district, that lone win was enough to vault Spoto into the postseason.
"We're every fortunate to be in the three-team district this year," Caparaso said. "But for the last couple of years we've been in these super districts with the Jeffersons and Lakewoods. We play who they tell us to play."
Caparaso said keeping his team focused for the Middleton game while mired in a losing streak took its toll.
"It's not easy looking these kids in the eyes after losses and telling them to keep fighting," he said. "And I couldn't let them see me get down because how can I expect them to be up when I'm down? This was the most draining season, from a physical perspective for sure, of my career."
But Caparaso also quickly points out that most of those seven losses came at the hands of good teams in higher classifications. Six of the Spartans' defeats were to 7A or 8A teams. And of those teams, four earned postseason berths.
"We played some very good football teams," Caparaso said. "And I saw our team getting better and tougher."
Caparaso also watched his team grow up right before his eyes. Nine of the Spartans' starting 11 on offense are underclassmen.
"We've had a very intense week of practice," said linebacker Rafael Morales, who leads the Spartans with 111 tackles. "I think this team has grown a lot during the year and it all comes down to tonight. This is it, it's do or die."
Spoto also has received a boost lately from running back Josh Battles, who missed the first half of the season while ineligible. Battles scored a TD against Middleton and rushed for 128 yards and a pair of scores last week against Leto.
"At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, I've never had a guy of his size running the ball here at Spoto," Caparaso said. "He's been a huge addition and if we had him earlier in the season, it would have made a difference in some of our losses."
But as of now, those losses might as well have been an eternity ago. After the huge win against Middleton, Spoto defeated Lennard and Leto to end the season on a three-game winning streak. Tonight's opponent, a tough Lake Wales team, will surely provide a tougher test than the Falcons or Longhorns, but Caparaso thinks his three-win team is primed to shock some people.
"Lake Wales is big up front and have a very good running back," he said. "But our record is deceiving. And I think this team is peaking at just the right time."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]