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Eagles refuse to squander early success

A year ago, Brandon couldn't handle prosperity.

After starting 2-0, the combination of youth and inexperience led to complacency and a promising season quickly unraveled.

The result: a 4-6 finish.

"We lost focus," Eagles two-way lineman Christian Stokes said.

Twelve months later, most of the players from that squad have returned and Brandon again is 2-0. While on the surface it might appear as though little has changed, that notion couldn't be farther from the truth. This Eagles team has two things its predecessor lacked: experience and maturity.

"This year," Stokes said, "we know what to do."

Brandon enters its Class 5A, District 7 opener at home tonight against No. 2-ranked Lakeland with a new state of mind after last week's thrilling 49-48 win against Jefferson.

All along, the Eagles thought they were capable of competing against the area's best, and that game proved it. The result is an injection of excitement into a program that has all of four playoff appearances and none since 1996.

"We're letting them go with it," second-year coach Jim Wilt said. "Everybody's excited, and they should be."

After beating Chamberlain and Wharton to start the 2003 season, the Eagles fell flat against Jefferson, then lost to Lakeland, Durant, Plant City and Riverview in succession.

Season over.

During the offseason, Wilt challenged his returning upperclassmen to go all out, and they responded. Four times a week during the summer they went through extra sets of workouts, then later joined their teammates for the regular practice.

"We really didn't get that much support around the school (after last season)," Stokes said. "But then we spent all that time together and it helped the team. Now, everybody is with us."

This squad, Wilt said, still is young, but now the group at least has experience, which is showing. The Eagles have won with defense, and offense. In a 17-0 opening victory over Wharton, Brandon held the Wildcats to seven first downs. A week later, the Eagles burned Jefferson for 500 yards behind the strong play of quarterback Tyson Gordon, running back Mike Brown and the offensive line.

"We're really coming together," wide receiver Ronnie Marcus said. "Now, we've got to keep it going."

It won't be easy. Lakeland (3-0) presents another imposing challenge. The Dreadnaughts have outscored opponents 146-28. A year ago, they beat Brandon 35-21. When asked if Brandon is capable of winning tonight, Stokes confidently said, "Yes we will beat them."

Times have changed.

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 226-3368 or online at niebuhrsptimes.com.

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