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Season marked by success, stigma

Four years ago, when Nease coach Craig Howard first walked into a room he was told might make a decent weight room, he thought one thing.

"I thought, 'We have a lot of work to do,' " Howard said of the drab room that had just 10 dusty workout machines.

The school's fifth coach in eight seasons inherited a 2-8 team. Now Nease is on the verge of winning back-to-back state championships. The Panthers face Plant on Saturday in the Class 4A championship at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

That empty room is now full of pristine machines, which Howard terms the secret of the team's success, including six powerlifting stations bearing the Nease logo on the hardwood bases and a pair of leg drive machines (modern-day versions of yesteryear's sleds that most programs only dream of). In the coaches office, players gather on couches and watch the previous day's practice on a video projection screen. On this day, coaches from newly crowned ACC champ Wake Forest are in town on a recruiting trip.

Nease, which has won its past 23 games, is trying to create a dynasty. At the same time, it is fighting to protect its reputation.

Last month, Nease was placed on six years restrictive probation and fined $20,000 - the harshest punishment handed down by the FHSAA - for giving preferential treatment to first-year player, which included a job for his father through one assistant coach and a living situation for the father and player with another. Two assistants were fired.

Under the sanctions, Nease cannot play out-of-state opponents, appear on television in the regular season or participate in preseason or spring games through the 2011 season. But the Panthers were allowed to participate in the postseason, which made skeptics say Nease got off easy.

"It knocks you to your knees," said Howard, who added he could not speak about the incident specifically. "I'm still physically sick about it. It makes us look like an outlaw program."

According to Nease principal Dr. Linda Thomson, self-reporting the incident to the FHSAA saved the Panthers' postseason, along with the fact the FHSAA did not rule the player ineligible and the school did not have to forfeit the games he played in. While Howard knew what was going on, he didn't think it was illegal, so Thomson said the top priority will be to make sure all coaches know the FHSAA rulebook from cover to cover.

Off the field, the sanctions did not appear to be a distraction. The Panthers were disciplined on Nov. 7 following their final regular-season game. Nease went on to win its four postseason games by an average margin of 22 points. What was expected to be a transition season - Nease lost 34 seniors, including record-breaking quarterback and current Florida Gator Tim Tebow, and returned just one offensive starter - quickly became another championship run.

Few will feel sorry for Nease, a school in an affluent part of St. John's County just south of Jacksonville. But Howard paints a different picture. His team, without a locker room, still dresses outside. Forming an offshoot, football-only booster club paid for weight room equipment. In the offseason, his players - often dressed in shirts and ties - divided up into 10-man teams and scoured the area for corporate sponsorships, going into boardrooms and pleading for donations. They raised nearly $70,000.

"To us that was rewarding," said senior defensive lineman Alex Kenney, whose team raised $17,000. "It was kind of like when you get your first paycheck and you go out and buy something for yourself with your own money."

Some say they shouldn't be talking about playing for a state championship. Howard said there has been a valuable lesson learned away from the football field.

"You're not going to go through life without facing adversity," Howard said. "I'm just proud that our boys didn't allow that to fragment them. There's all the positiveness around you, then boom, there's this black mark on the program.

"You have to stay strong from within."

Fast facts

Nease by the numbers

- 23 consecutive victories

- 14 wins in 2006, a school record

- Six Division 1-A college commitments

-Second straight Class 4A, District 5 title

- Ranked No. 1 in state in Class 4A

- First win over St. Augustine High in 13 years

- Defeated district competition by a 163-14 margin

- Advanced to second straight Class 4A championship game

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