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Promise that Dixie Hollins football matters is coming to fruition

Coach Dale Caparaso says the key to the Rebels thriving is that "we’ve kept the Dixie kids at Dixie.”

ST. PETERSBURG — After last season ended, Dixie Hollins High coach Dale Caparaso wanted to unwind. He urged his football players to do the same.

Months of workouts, practices and games were over. It was time to reflect, to relax. The plan was for the team to rededicate themselves for another grueling run after Thanksgiving.

The break only lasted a few days.

Rebels captain Jameire West asked Caparaso to open up the weight room the Monday following the final game.

“What am I going to do, say no?” Caparaso said.

The coach told the players they could lift weights on a volunteer basis. Twenty-eight showed up.

Caparaso wondered if it was just players trying to figure out what to do with their energy. This was no fad. By the end of the week, there were 32.

“I didn’t even have 28 players to lift weights when I first got here two years ago,” Caparaso said.

Coach Dale Caparaso records during football practice at Dixie Hollins. He'll be facing his old team, Pasco, on Friday. [Times (2019)]

The sessions continued —through winter and spring breaks, including every holiday. They kept going in the summer.

All that heavy lifting has helped Dixie Hollins bulk up where it matters most: the win column.

The Rebels are 2-1 heading into tonight’s Homecoming game against Pasco.

“We knew it was coming,” junior receiver Garion Young said of the team’s improvement. “The practices, the training. We worked hard all the way through the summer. We knew we had a chance to be a great team.”

For years, Dixie Hollins was the runt of Pinellas County football. The Rebels have not had a winning season since 2005, the last year the program made the playoffs.

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Caparaso, who previously coached at Pasco and Spoto, sought to change that when he took over in 2017. He wanted to build something, so he started eight sophomores and two freshmen his first season.

“I told all those kids when I first got here that in two years Dixie Hollins is going to matter in football,” Caparaso said.

The growing pains were evident. The Rebels went 2-8 two years ago. But the players did not bolt for other established programs. They vowed to see the reclamation project all the way through.

“The biggest change is we’ve kept the Dixie kids at Dixie,” Caparaso said. “We haven’t lost kids. And that is really rare around here. The Dixie kid is no longer the elite athlete who is transferring to this school or that school. They made a commitment to turn this thing around.”

There was significant improvement last season. The Rebels went 5-5 (they picked up a forfeit win over Clearwater because of an ineligible player). The win total equaled the previous three years combined.

The progress continued in the spring when Dixie Hollins scored more than 60 points in a win over Haines City.

All those youngsters who took their lumps two years ago are now veterans. The offense is led by the passing combination of junior quarterback Fernando Monroe and Young. The top two tacklers on defense are West, a junior, and Brendan Young, a senior.

Garion Young runs drills during football practice at Dixie Hollins. "We knew we had a chance to be a great team,” he says of the 2-1 start. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

The watershed moment came two weeks ago when the Rebels beat Countryside, marking the first time that has happened in more than a decade.

Afterward, Caparaso was in his office, telling his wife, Anne, an assistant principal at Largo Middle, just how much that win mattered.

“I kind of looked at her and I said, ‘Dixie football just made a change,’” Caparaso said. “It’s not something I did or the coaches did. We beat Countryside, and the kids have this confidence that I’ve never seen around here.”

The players are no longer just satisfied with a few wins. They want the Class 6A, District 8 title.

Some have even loftier goals.

“I want to take this thing all the way to states,” Monroe said.

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Caparaso tried downplay those expectations.

“Lets just worry about beating Pasco first,” he said.

A win against the Pirates would have special meaning for Caparaso, who coached there from 2003-06.

“The kids know I coached there, but I’ll probably tell them in the locker room at some point just how important this one is,” he said.

For now, all the players wanted to do after practice ended was lift more weights.

“They’ll stay here until 7 tonight,” Caparaso said. “I pretty much have to kick them out of here.”

Football schedule, Week 5

All games Friday night.

Shorecrest at Bishop McLaughlin, 7

Pasco at Dixie Hollins, 7

Bayshore Christian at Merritt Island Christian, 7

IMG White at Berkeley Prep, 7

Admiral Farragut at Carrollwood Day, 7

North Port at Tampa Catholic, 7

Indian Rocks Christian at Out-of-Door, 7

Keswick Christian at Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic, 7

Northside Christian at St. Stephen’s, 7

Steinbrenner at Hillsborough, 7:30

Clearwater Academy at American Collegiate, 7:30

River Ridge at Wiregrass Ranch, 7:30

Land O’Lakes at Sunlake, 7:30

Wildwood at Hernando, 7:30

Chamberlain at Armwood, 7:30

Bloomingdale at Plant, 7:30

Durant at Newsome, 7:30

Tarpon Springs at East Lake, 7:30

Braden River at Lakewood, 7:30

Palmetto at Largo, 7:30

Nature Coast at Central, 7:30

Crystal River at Springstead, 7:30

Anclote at Fivay, 7:30

Mitchell at Cypress Creek, 7:30

Gulf at Dunedin, 7:30

Alonso at Sickles, 7:30

Blake at King, 7:30

Brandon at Middleton, 7:30

Bradenton Christian at Cambridge Christian, 7:30

Plant City at East Bay, 7:30

Freedom at Wharton, 7:30

Jefferson at Spoto, 7:30

Riverview at Strawberry Crest, 7:30

Seminole at Boca Ciega, 7:30

First Academy at Calvary Christian, 7:30

CCC at Sebring, 7:30

Countryside at Palm Harbor U., 7:30

Gibbs at St. Petersburg, 7:30

Osceola at Northeast, 7:30