WESLEY CHAPEL — The proverbial punches have come in flurries recently, leaving veteran Wesley Chapel football coach John Castelamare no time to even duck.
His octogenarian parents are ailing; Mom recently had a cancerous kidney removed, and Dad's in a wheelchair. Also heavy on Castelamare's mind is the chance that, like former Land O'Lakes counterpart John Benedetto, his teaching contract won't be extended past the next school year.
Then, of course, there are the latest series of blows. In the past couple of months, Castelamare's leading passer, rusher and receiver, and at least one assistant, from his 2008 team have transferred.
"I'm past the jabs. I've been right-crossed," Castelamare said between seven-on-seven games Tuesday evening at River Ridge High, where six area teams convened. "This year has been a right-cross year. But I was taught to hang in there and keep working hard."
Now, Castelamare is doing just that, with defiant determination.
No local program has been stung harder by the litany of offseason transfers than Wesley Chapel. Since April, receiver Mitch Wozniak and quarterback/punter C.J. West have transferred to nearby rival Pasco; two-way Division I prospect Hunter Joyer moved to Tampa Catholic.
Castelamare, 60, refuses to speak about the defections with the media or even his players, instead focusing on the group that has remained faithful to the program.
"We teach camaraderie, loyalty to your coaches, to your school. I mean, we teach that," Castelamare said. "So it's hard to understand other situations. Sometimes there's different reasons (for transferring); I don't want to go into that garbage."
Joyer's father, Jack, recently told the Times his son's reason for transferring was academics related. Neither Wozniak nor West could be reached. Some with long memories will smugly insist the transfers represent payback for the earlier part of the decade, when Wesley Chapel posted two 10-0 regular seasons with several players once zoned for Pasco High.
Whatever reasons for the exodus, Castelamare isn't dwelling on them. He believes his remaining group, which moves from Class 5A to the eight-team 3A-7 district, still is talented enough to contend for a playoff berth.
"If they don't want to play here that's fine," he said. "We're getting ready, just like I've always done. We're going to work hard and get ready for the season. We have enough people and enough personnel to do what we've got to do."
Castelamare brought 21 players to Tuesday's seven-on-seven action; the rest of the squad lifted weights at the school in a supervised workout session.
Three players — sophomores Jamal Roberts and Keegan Tanner and senior left-hander Mike Vizza — took snaps in seven-on-seven play. Roberts has evoked comparisons with ex-Wildcats quarterback Greg Jenkins, who led Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to a top-five national junior college ranking last season.
Whoever wins the job will operate behind an offensive line that lost only two starters. Tight end and Division I prospect Chris Pierre Charles (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) participated in Tuesday's games, as did center Raymond Nixon (6-3, 307). Fact is, barring any more departures, the Wildcats remain one of the more physically imposing teams in the district.
Such is the message Castelamare imparted between games Tuesday. With his players seated around him on a sidewalk near the visitors' bleachers, the veteran coach told the Wildcats they had as much athleticism as any team out there.
Now, perhaps they have incentive, too.
"I think they know they can do it," Castelamare said. "If they feel that there's pressure on them, that people are going to say they're shot or whatever, it might be good for them. It might give them a kick in the rear."