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Sickles, Wharton spring into sophomore football seasons

The last time Dan Acosta held spring practice, it wasn't much like football.

"We didn't have any pads, helmets, uniforms," Acosta recalled of the May 1997 practices, months before Wharton High would begin classes. Heck, his players didn't even have a facility.

"Last year, the spring did not give us any indication of what we had _ it was just a gathering of kids," he said. "We needed to have some hitting, to be evaluating our material. We weren't able to do that until the fall."

Expect an entirely different approach beginning today, the start of spring football practices across Florida. The second season for Wharton and Sickles High effectively begins today, when Acosta and Sickles coach Shannon O'Brien take the first steps toward evaluating and shaping the lineups for their fall 1998 campaigns.

Wharton is coming off a 1-9 inaugural year, its only victory a forfeit (awarded later in the season) by fellow first-year program Blake because a player was found to have been academically ineligible. The Wildcats did not have a victory on the field.

Sickles had exactly one, over Wharton, 12-6. The Gryphons went 1-8, the missing game against Jesuit canceled due to rain and never rescheduled.

Those records are typical for first-year high school programs without any seniors. A winning football program often takes several years to build, though Acosta and O'Brien would like to accomplish that quicker if possible.

O'Brien feels very positive about his chances. With Sickles' population growing rapidly, 153 prospective players attended a recent football meeting, including 75 brand new to the program, he said.

Though some Sickles players (mostly freshmen) did choose not to return, all the starters will be back and O'Brien has been impressed by his team's weight training.

"We had some really great gains in the off-season, and I'm looking forward to getting out there," he said. "We ask the kids to work hard in the weight room, and they have."

Though Sickles moved up to Class 5A this season, O'Brien chose not to have his team join a 5A district for the fall, which will exclude it from the possibility of post-season competition. Joining the district would have required numerous schedule changes, and the Gryphons would be hard-pressed to compete for a playoff berth in their second year anyway. So Sickles will be a 5A independent.

As fast as it's growing, the school probably will move up to 6A _ the largest class _ at some point next year.

"By keeping our same schedule as last year, we've got six home games, it doesn't screw up my schedule and it doesn't screw up anyone else's schedule," O'Brien said. "We're going to 6A anyway; our numbers are going to be sky-high." Also, playing the same teams as last year is "going to give us a good evaluation tool" by allowing for comparison of results in 1998 against 1997.

Acosta, whose team remains in 4A for the 1998 season, said his task might be a bit harder: Not only is his school not growing as quickly, he said, but his players generally are younger than O'Brien's.

"Last year we had 28 freshmen on varsity, 18 sophomores and five or six juniors," Acosta said, "so we're still going to be very young."

The teams will practice on weekdays for four weeks leading up to half-length jamboree games May 29. Sickles will play Bradenton Bayshore at Gaither, while Wharton will play at Hillsborough High. Acosta said he was not sure who his team will face, but the jamboree also includes Chamberlain and Jesuit.

Sickles' intrasquad contest, the Green and White game, will be held May 21 at the school. Wharton's Blue and White game will be May 22 at its campus.

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