TRINITY — Though he has guided the Mitchell High from a football team happy to make the playoffs, to one that expects to advance in them, even Andy Schmitz didn’t see this coming.
"Ah, no," said the coach as his undefeated squad readied to host Chamberlain (8-2) as the No. 2 seed in Class 7A, Region 2. "I knew we could be really good. I felt like we could have a loss or two and have a really successful season."
Everything else, Schmitz has had a pretty good read on.
It’s always been that way, according to father Scott, who preceded Andy as the long-time Mitchell coach.
"Coaching is really in his blood. As crazy as it sounds, and he may be a little embarrassed to hear this, even when he was 2 years old he would sit on my lap and we would watch football games," said Scott, who coached for 36 years and recently retired from the school. "And he’d sit there for a half hour, 45 minutes, and not budge. He’s been around it his entire life. And he was always smart."
The younger (just turned 38) Schmitz only momentarily blushes as the story is relayed.
"That’s what him and I did together. I remember never getting bored with it. Him and I watching sports together is what I probably remember most of my childhood," he said.
The toddler-stage indoctrination into X’s and O’s took place in Illinois, and it continued to flourish as the Schmitz family moved to Pasco County a few years later. It included Schmitz as waterboy while dad was a football assistant at Ridgewood in the late 1980s; and a role as assistant scorekeeper for legendary Ridgewood baseball coach Larry Beets (Scott was the official scorer).
Schmitz even got some first-hand experience his senior year at River Ridge — the year he was the starting quarterback, and dad was head coach.
"That was an interesting experience. You know most people get to go home and be away from their coach after a bad day of practice. I didn’t," he said.
But he must have enjoyed it. At FSU, Schmitz served as a student assistant for a year and a half. And after graduating in 2001, he jumped right onto the Mitchell staff for Scott, the inaugural head coach for the school, opened just a year earlier.
Mitchell made the playoffs from 2002-04, but went on the road each time and lost by an average of 34 points. Two seasons ago, Schmitz’s second year, Mitchell won the district and hosted for the first time, but lost 24-17 to Gainesville. Last year Mitchell finally prevailed in the playoffs, 17-14 over Ocala Forest before losing 46-23 to Ocala Vanguard.
The Mustangs hung around in that one before Vanguard’s overall team speed wore them down.
Cue this year’s schedule, orchestrated by Schmitz.
"We got a little bit of it last year with Vanguard, so we know what speed is," said junior linebacker Nick Ferrini. "That’s the big thing going from Pasco County (opponents) to them, a bunch of studs."
So the Mustangs scheduled Clearwater, and beat them for a 4-0 start that got the undefeated wheels turning. The sixth win, a victory over Berkeley Prep, was a turning point. Even the preseason game, Zephyrhills (now 9-1), was part of the plan.
Mitchell, if it can get past Chamberlain, could host Vanguard again. Since last year, Mitchell has changed quarterbacks, with Jakob Mattos allowing Justin Locklear to concentrate on playing linebacker.
And the Mustangs have added a key piece in Gulf transfer Stephaun "Tank" Peters, a CB/WR who Schmitz says has fit perfectly into the "way we do things" at Mitchell.
"We practice hard. We coach our kids very hard. We expect them to watch film, if they don’t, there’s repercussions. We expect them to be prepared for practice, and if they don’t there’s repercussions," Andy said. "Sometimes you worry about seniors transferring in, not fitting in, not adapting to the way we do things. Tank’s just come in and said ‘what can I do?.’?"
Ferrini says Schmitz "is a leader … He teaches us how to be men, shows us right from wrong in everything, on an off the field" — namely, convincing Ferrini the dangers of driving too fast, something Ferrini says he takes "a lot easier" now.
Schmitz’s way also features the unique approach of having his varsity coaching staff double as the JV staff. He turns the entire varsity defensive reins over to coordinator Justin Fenton, a high school teammate, best friend and longtime Mustangs assistant.
Mychael "Catfish" Hamilton, the star senior running back, knows Schmitz and Co. will have them ready for anything.
"He’s always determined to put in the work," Hamilton said. "He’s an awesome coach."