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Jason Stokes tasked with turning Pasco football around

“We’ve got talent,” Stokes says. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”

Jason Stokes spent last weekend at the NFL draft party for Amani Oruwariye, the former Gaither High and Penn State standout who was selected in the fifth round by the Detroit Lions. The gathering served as a reunion for Stokes, who caught up with several players he helped mold and develop in five seasons as coach with the Cowboys (2011-16).

After taking time to reminisce, Stokes went back to work on his latest reclamation project.

In January, Stokes was hired to take over at Pasco High. He replaces Tom McHugh, who left after 12 seasons.

Stokes got the job by captivating the school’s administration with his vision. He is trying to change the Pirates’ second-class existence among programs in Pasco County.

After going through an incredibly successful run for nearly a decade, the Pirates fell on hard times.

They have not made the playoffs since 2013 and had gone through four straight losing seasons.

What intrigued Stokes the most about Pasco was the toughness in the players, something they showed often in 7-on-7 tournaments.

Stokes wanted to make his presence known — quickly. He became a physical education teacher days after getting the football job.

For months, Stokes spoke about the talent that surrounded him, until the players believed every word he said. He walked the hallways, talking up the football program to any student who would listen.

By doing so, Stokes gained reinforcements. Pasco has 77 players (junior varsity and varsity combined) on the current roster. There were 41 on varsity last year.

Pasco's Darrion Robinson waits for coach Jason Stokes to explain a play during practice. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times)

“The big thing was getting kids to stay and not go elsewhere,” Stokes said. “And then it was about getting others to come out to build the numbers. We’re getting there.”

Stokes knows about transforming teams. This is his fourth coaching stop in the area. Besides Gaither, Stokes was in charge at Bloomingdale (2008), Middleton (2009-10), Indian Rocks Christian (2017) and Lake Region (2018). He guided three of those programs to playoff appearances.

Stokes’ tenures lately have been brief. This is his fourth school in as many years.

This time, he intends on staying, in part because of his affection for the program.

Most everything Stokes wanted as building blocks have worked. He built unity on accountability. He preached about the importance of mental toughness.

He also made football fun.

“Coach is the most exciting guy when it comes to work,” said junior Darrion Robinson, who had more than 500 yards receiving and five touchdowns last season. “The team and I really have a bond with him, too. He’s doing a lot for our community and doing whatever it takes to get me and the team recognized. He’s a coach you can always trust.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had hands down. I’m a better person inside and outside because of him.”

Now comes spring practice —and the promise of a new start.

Time for blocking and tackling, X’s and O’s, fundamentals and execution.

The good stuff.

“We’ve got talent,” Stokes said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”

He already has his players believing they can win, even if some have to pull double duty

“The enthusiasm is at 100 percent on the field,” Robinson said. “We have a small team, but we can play both ways with no problem because we go 200 percent during practice. We have to work with what we got, and I think we have a really good team.”

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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