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Independence just the boost Dunedin football needed

Mired in a 43-game losing streak, the Falcons opted to leave district play to have more control over their schedule. No one can argue with the results.
Dunedin quarterback Dylan Oester, left, listens as coach Mitch Disney gives instruction during a recent practice. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
Dunedin quarterback Dylan Oester, left, listens as coach Mitch Disney gives instruction during a recent practice. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Sep. 10, 2019

DUNEDIN — For two seasons, Dunedin High football coach Mitch Disney went through practices that lasted hours, knowing the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

The Falcons did not have enough players — or talent — to compete with similar-sized programs. Disney found out what he was up against when he had 12 players show up for his first offseason workout in 2017.

The losses piled up — 43 straight to be exact.

As a result, the program was spiraling into football oblivion.

There were no signs of snapping that streak, especially after the new classifications and districts were released in the spring.

Dunedin was placed in a district that included six other teams from four different counties. It was not just challenging geographically. All six teams finished at least 5-5 last season.

Disney took drastic measures. He decided the program should become an independent.

The move meant the Falcons could not compete for the playoffs because they no longer belonged in a district.

Dunedin defensive end Cornellius Pickens rushes the quarterback during a recent practice. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

But it also gave Disney flexibility with his schedule. He could now play games in which Dunedin could be competitive, maybe even win. The school’s administrative staff backed his proposal.

The Falcons scheduled games against private schools in lower classifications and against public that have gone through similar struggles. That not only helped Dunedin snap its losing streak, but create a winning one.

The team has won its first three games this season. Friday night, they face winless Seminole, Disney’s alma mater.

“We would have been traveling far away for games where we wouldn’t be close to winning,” Disney said of staying in the district. “That would have been more of a deterrent than anything else. We needed to boost morale. We needed to find games we could win. Going independent was the best route to do that.”

This is not the first time Pinellas County public schools have opted to become independents.

In 1993, Countryside, Northeast and Seminole decided to play an independent schedule rather than journey across the Sunshine Skyway to enter a district that included state title contenders Bradenton Manatee and Bradenton Southeast. Northeast and Seminole did the same thing from 1985-87.

The Falcons were a powerhouse during that time, advancing to two straight title games (1986-87).

The program has struggled to return to gridiron glory.

The past six seasons have seen the most drastic decline. Part of the problem is a constant turnover of coaches. Disney is the fourth coach during that span.

With no continuity, players either quit or leave for other schools. Disney ended up with just 23 players in 2017. The Falcons were outscored that season by a combined 459-6.

Nate Witherspoon, a senior offensive lineman, played the past two seasons on varsity. He was there for the routs, including a 74-0 loss to district opponent Lakewood two years ago.

“I had never played football before coming out two years ago,” Witherspoon said. “That loss to Lakewood was tough. Guys would tuck away their jerseys at school. They didn’t want anyone to know they were a part of the football team because we would all get ridiculed.”

Dunedin's Davious Haywood goes up for the catch with quarterback Dylan Oester defending while participating in a passing drill. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

Disney proposed other solutions. Because the numbers were so low (the school has not fielded a junior varsity team the past two seasons), he wanted to scrap varsity football for a few years and build with a junior varsity team. The administrators balked at that idea because the upperclassmen would not be able to play junior varsity.

So Disney did the next best thing — go independent.

“All the players thought it was a great idea,” Witherspoon said. “It allows us to build something and grow.”

The numbers are up. The Falcons have 53 players, enough to field varsity and junior varsity teams. One of those players was running back Davious Haywood, who returned from disciplinary issues and leads the team in rushing yards.

And after beating Keswick Christian, Osceola and Tampa Bay Christian to start the season, morale is one the rise, too.

“The stands are now packed,” Witherspoon said. “People talk about the team at school. We can now wear our jerseys with pride.”

Football, Week 4

Mitchell at Pinellas Park, 7:30

Admiral Farragut at Cambridge Christian, 7:30 (at Skyway Park)

Lecanto at Central, 7:30

Nature Coast at Wiregrass Ranch, 7:30

Tampa Catholic at Land O’Lakes, 7:30

Zephyrhills at Wesley Chapel, 7:30

Clearwater at Largo, 7:30

East Bay at Gaither, 7:30

Middleton at Jefferson, 7:30

Lennard at Newsome, 7:30

Tampa Bay Tech at Plant, 7:30

Lakeland at Plant City, 7:30

Bloomingdale at Durant, 7:30

Alonso at Steinbrenner, 7:30

Lakewood at Boca Ciega, 7:30

Sunlake at East Lake, 7:30

Dunedin at Seminole, 7:30

St. Petersburg Catholic at Clearwater Central Catholic, 7:30

Hernando at Crystal River, 7

Citrus at Weeki Wachee, 7:30

Anclote at Gulf, 7:30

Cypress Creek at Pasco, 7:30

Chiefland at Hudson, 7:30

River Ridge at Tarpon Springs, 7:30

Florida A&M at Zephyrhills Christian, 7:30

Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic at Bayshore Christian, 7

Blake at Hillsborough, 7:30

King at Brandon, 7:30

Seffner Christian at Carrollwood Day, 7

Chamberlain at Bradenton Bayshore, 7:30

Spoto at Freedom, 7:30

Sarasota Booker at Jesuit, 7:30

Leto at Sickles, 7:30

American Collegiate at Tampa Bay Christian, 7

Riverview at Haines City, 7:30

Gibbs at Robinson, 7:30

Lakeland Kathleen at Strawberry Crest, 7:30

Wharton at Palm Harbor University, 7:30

Elder (Ohio) at Clearwater Academy, 7

Countryside at Osceola, 7:30

Indian Rocks Christian at Keswick Christian, 7

Northside Christian at Foundation Academy, 7

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

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