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NEW COACH, NFL ENERGY

Bloomingdale High plays its home opener tonight without the man who turned the team around, but the Bulls have a plan.

For 21 years, the Bloomingdale High School football team failed to put together a winning season. Fans expected blowout losses, and a trip to the playoffs seemed impossible.

Then last season Jason Stokes took over as coach, leading the Bulls to their first winning season and a playoff berth since the team started in 1987. But it didn't take long for Stokes to leave the program that he helped turn around. In the offseason, he took over at Middleton High School.

His departure left players with more to prove as they try to make another playoff bid.

"We still don't have the respect that we deserve in school, I think," senior defensive end Chris Diemer said. "They think that after Stokes left the winning left, but that's not the case."

So how does a school rebound from losing a coach who finally ended all the losing?

The answer came from Kansas - John Booth, a former receiver and quarterback who played in the National Football League, NFL Europe and the Arena Football League. At age 27, Booth's career had already changed from player to coach, and he was ready to return close to his Bradenton roots.

In the days following Bloomingdale's two-point exhibition loss to Wharton a couple of weeks ago, Booth noticed something odd at school.

There was a positive buzz, despite the loss.

It was a close game with several promising plays for Bloomingdale. One that might be considered a moral victory in years past.

"That's a culture thing that you expect from a losing school," Booth said. "That's something that we're going to change. What matters are wins and losses."

Coming off a 19-7 loss last week in the season opener at Lennard, the Bulls are poised for their home opener tonight against East Bay, a team they beat by three touchdowns on their way to the playoffs last year.

"Ahh, it's going to be great," said Sean Tate, a senior receiver.

Bloomingdale finished last season on a sour note, losing 48-6 at Lakeland in the first round of the playoffs to cap a 6-5 season. This year, the Bulls expect to win a district championship and host a playoff game.

"I think the players are starting to gain confidence," said Danielle Shotwell, the school's athletic director. "The new coaching staff has done a great job continuing what was built last year."

In his 15th year as an assistant coach at Bloomingdale, David Hutcherson has worked under seven head coaches. Booth became the third coach for this year's upperclassmen when Stokes left.

What Booth and his staff have to offer, though, outweighs the adjustments that come with new coaches, Hutcherson said. Booth and four of the assistants he hired have NFLexperience.

"What they're teaching these kids is another level," said Hutcherson, 59. "It is what they teach in college, and if you've got great technique we'll win some football games."

Players say the experience of the Bulls' new staff gives the coaches instant credibility and helps with the transition. Booth runs routes with the offense every day in practice.

"It's nice to know that he knows what he's talking about," Tate said. "If we want to go to that next level, we know we can look up to him to get us there."

As the quarterback at Manatee High, Booth led his team to the second round of the playoffs his senior year. In college, he won two conference championships at Mid America Nazarene University in Kansas.

He has never been part of a perennial losing team like the seniors at Bloomingdale have and like some of their older brothers had.

"These kids understand what it takes, and the ones who don't, we're teaching that you can't just come out to the field and expect to win," Booth said. "I'm really optimistic on where this thing's going."

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Even when Bloomingdale was losing, Charley Harris Stadium was a popular spot to be on Friday nights. If nothing else, it was a place to socialize or to watch the highly respected marching band.

Players hope coming back from a winning season changes fans' motives.

"There's a bunch of people in the school who are coming here to talk to their friends," Tate said. "But hopefully we can catch their attention doing something good on the field and beating somebody."

Although one winning season might not be enough to gain respect or change a culture, coaches say it did help bring dozens more players to the team.

Almost 70 kids showed up for Booth's summer workouts. That number was between 10 and 30 in the past, Hutcherson said.

"If you're out here sweating and pushing tires and running 40s with the kids all summer, it builds your unity," he said. "I really think this year we're going to turn some heads.

"If we don't have a lot of turnovers, if we don't have penalties, I think we're going to shock some people."

Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

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