CARROLLWOOD — Standing on the artificial grass on the Naples campus of First Baptist in December, the Carrollwood Day School Patriots stared devastation in the face.
"Heartbreaking," rising senior Dominic Cuono put it. "We had a lot of seniors on the team, and seeing them upset hurt a lot."
After falling to First Baptist 56-28 in the Class 2A regional football final, the Patriots faced the reality that their big run at a state title was probably over.
The Patriot roster, which ballooned to 29 players by the end of last season, saw nine of those players graduate. Those seniors accounted for more than 94 percent of the team's offensive production.
"No one's ever played center for me besides Jared (Smith). Andy (Embody) was a first down or touchdown any time he made a catch, and Robert (Davis) could score on any play," head coach Lane McLaughlin said. "This year, my wide receivers have eight catches between them."
But unseen on stat sheet or roster were two trends that have the Patriots back on their feet and aiming higher than ever.
The first is a veteran core of players that has developed under the wings of the last few graduating classes. Rising seniors Dominic Cuono, Hayden Peek and Shilpen Patel and rising juniors Max Frankel and Elias Earley form a steadfast core for the 2013 Patriots to build around. They are the only five players left who have been with the team for three years, and they're a bit different than they were three years ago.
Cuono, who was 5 feet 8 and 145 pounds as a freshman, is now 6-2 and 215 pounds. He went from relative obscurity to leading the team in tackles last season with 129. Cuono had a 37-yard rushing touchdown and a 15-yard receiving score in CDS's recent spring game.
Earley will set up the offensive backfield and likely line up in the slot this fall. He rushed for 160 yards in just one half of play against Bishop McLaughlin.
Frankel — 5 feet 9 and 165 pounds as a freshman and now 6 feet and 200 pounds — experimented with a shift from linebacker to strong safety in the spring and looks to be the thunder aspect of a running-game one-two punch for CDS.
Peek — 5-10, 205 as a freshman and now 6 feet, 250 — will have the unenviable task of filling in for Smith at center while Patel settles into his third year at right guard. They've all earned their stripes, having been on varsity since the eighth grade.
"I remember (freshman year) I had to go against Mak (Djulbegovic, now with University of South Florida and listed at 6-5, 289) and he would just destroy us," Patel said.
Second-year players Jake McAllister and Carlos Acuna also expect to factor into 2013 success.
The second trend was CDS's improving football reputation.
"We were a good football team before; we're a football program now," McLaughlin said as he addressed the team after the spring victory.
As the Patriots went deep into the playoffs last fall, people started hearing and talking about CDS football. Freedom's starting quarterback from a year ago, Taylor King, saw a chance to compete for a starting job on a team with a good shot at the playoffs, and he transferred. Several other players seem to have caught on to the trend at CDS. Two others sat in jerseys on the sideline at the spring game, not yet eligible to play, but coaches have hinted that even more transfers will come into the fold this fall.
"More help is on the way, both from ninth-graders and a few more transfers," McLaughlin said.
The Patriots will start off their regular season with a bang as they host defending the Class 2A state champions, University Christian of Jacksonville, on Aug. 30. Defensive coordinator Sal Cuono said University Christian approached them to set up the game, a further testament to CDS's growing reputation.