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Falcons set for takeoff under Kitchie

TAMPA -- The planes taking off from Tampa International Airport zoom directly above Leto High seemingly every other minute, their jet-fueled decibels drowning out every sound below.

"I hate these planes," first-year Falcons coach Matt Kitchie says, more to himself than the 30 or so kids kneeling around him, as another Delta disrupts his post-practice address.

On an arid west Tampa afternoon, the imagery is all too fitting. Kitchie, the team's third navigator in as many springs, has inherited a program perpetually grounded in mediocrity and obscurity. Lately, the only part of Falcons football that really has taken off are the coaches.

Yet Kitchie, who insists this job is not a mere connection to a more high-profile destination, says he's bent on seeing the program go skyward.

"We're in the SEC of the Florida High School Athletic Association, so we've got to do little steps," Kitchie says after a Thursday afternoon practice. "And you know what, we're going to make Leto the program everybody wants it to be. We're going to be the next Plant, I hope."

It's a daunting chore that will require time, tough love and talent. Kitchie, hired last month following his well-documented dismissal after two seasons at Land O'Lakes, says those elements are in place.

In the wake of the horrific 2010 season, in which Leto scored only 14 points, won its only game via forfeit and watched first-year coach Mike Jalazo resign to take the same job at Northeast, Kitchie removed all the logos from the team's red helmets to symbolize a break from the past.

Then, he instilled accountability -- in every crevice of the program.

Rising senior cornerback/receiver Tito Salcedo must make sure the locker room remains in order. Junior-to-be Andre Simpson, whom Kitchie hints is the best player no one knows, sees to it everyone is in the right stance in the huddle. Others are in charge of the practice field.

And heaven help anyone who gets out of line during school.

"You get in trouble, see that tire right there?" Salcedo said, pointing to a rear farm tractor tire. "You have to flip it 500 (yards), back and forth. … It's no joke."

Should a life be transformed with a session of tire turning, or a paternal hug, or trip to a USF game (the team reward for an 80-percent turnout to the summer program), then Kitchie will be content -- for now.

At this point, he'll take moral victories, with the hope that on-field ones will be the byproduct. Currently, he has only 33 players. When quarterback Jonathan Figuruo called in sick Thursday, Kitchie had to play the position at practice himself.

With such little depth, the Falcons will be hard-pressed to contend for 48 minutes with the likes of Class 6A, District 8 foes Armwood, Jefferson and Hillsborough.

"The goal is to improve," said Kitchie, who brought three LOL assistants with him. "We have realistic goals. We want to score more points than we did last year -- that shouldn't be hard.

"We actually have a goal to get 14 points a game. The other thing is, we want to cut in half what was scored against us (438). And we think those are realistic goals and expectations, and also if we do some of those things maybe we'll win some games."

Two weeks into the Kitchie era, the Falcons seem to be buying in.

"The biggest thing is, he can translate to our life," Salcedo said.

"There are a lot of kids that have got problems at home, the economy, stuff like that. Last year's coach, I don't like to say he was never around us or got to know us personally, but now, Coach Kitchie will come around, he'll be like, 'Hey, how you doin'?' He'll joke around with us, say a couple of jokes. Get our comfort, that's the biggest thing."

Today, it's about finding a comfort zone. Tomorrow, perhaps an end zone. If Kitchie's plan progresses, maybe -- just maybe -- the floundering program he inherited will gain altitude.

"I sat down with all these kids and the one thing I left the room with was, we don't want everybody going, 'Oh, we're going to play Leto.' We want them going, 'Oh no, we're playing Leto,'" Kitchie said.

"And after the game we want them like, 'Oh man, great game.' That's more important than anything, and wins will follow."