RIVERVIEW – At Bell Creek, this is Year 1 in its football program. The beginning is never easy, but it starts from the top and the Panthers have a bright mind on the sidelines.
Through eight games, Bell Creek sit at 2-6. However, head coach Jason Smith sees endless potential in his group for year’s to come.
“Our biggest thing is to get started at a time when being at a school of 350 kids never having any kind of tackle football experience at all,” Smith told Prep Sports Scouting. “It is really just to build a tradition.”
Smith says that at one point this off-season that the team consisted of 18-20 kids. Currently, Bell Creek has 35 kids on the roster. He’s been pleased with the participation which includes four seniors.
The excitement behind the upstart program started back in the spring when 150 parents and fans made the trip to Lake Placid for a preseason game against the Lake Placid Dragons.
“One thing we talked about was being part of a family and these kids wanted to be a part of that,” he said. “There were some kids that were a little hesitant but then they decided they wanted to be a part of history.”
Smith says that kids at the school that aren’t on the team currently are already talking about suiting up next season.
There has been a learning process with everyone involved not just the players, Smith says.
“The learning curve for an entire school and an administration to have a football program as part of your sport offering is not like any sport out there,” he said.
Of the 35 players on the Bell Creek roster currently only three had ever played high school football before (junior Demani Hemley and sophomores Zach Swan, Cody Doud). A couple had participated in little league ball back in 5th grade, Smith says.
In asking Smith the hardest part of putting a new program together with inexperienced players, he had this to say.
“In some ways, it is very difficult because as coaches we have to really slow down and remember that they don’t have the basics of what we say when to tackle on defense,” he said.
“They have no clue what head position, keeping your head up and all those kind of things really mean. Even blocking, where the ball is supposed to go on dive or jet sweeps.”
However, with inexperience comes teaching and Smith says this group is very open to soaking it all in.
“We haven’t inherited a lot of bad habits of kids saying ‘this is what this is and that’s how I know to do it’ so they just continue with a bad habit,” he said. “We are able to build most of that from scratch which has turned out to be pretty good for us in the long run.
“The biggest challenge with that is that no one has gotten in shape to play football before and they have now realized how long a football season really is with the season nearing the end.”
Last Friday night, the Panthers hosted the first ever senior night in program history.
This week, they’ll welcome Marco Island to town for the finale during Homecoming night. Bell Creek plays its home games at Larry Sanders Progress Village Sports Complex on south 78 street.
For Smith, this marks his first head coaching gig. The 1991 East Bay graduate was an offensive tackle for an Indians team that finished 7-3 that year with stud quarterback Gary Moore under center. It was East Bay’s best record since 1973, the program’s last district title.
He served as an interim head coach at Southwest Florida Christian, a program that he helped start in 2009. East Bay was his first head coaching job. He also had stops at Riverview, Cypress Lake and at the pop warner level.
Toughness and football IQ are two things Smith says he has seen more of as the season has progressed.
“The major difference is they’ve really stepped up quite a bit,” he said. “We had a game down in Ft. Myers [at Canterbury] and they got a couple cheap shots in and things like that.
“Earlier in the season our guys sort of backed down a bit, you could tell they got scared. In that game, they started firing back, not anything cheap but you could see they bode their necks a little bit.”
Bell Creek traveled to St. Petersburg earlier this month to take on 2A powerhouse Northside Christian. After the loss, Northside Christian head coach Mike Alstott and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star back talked to Smith’s group.
Five seasons ago, Alstott took over the program and the Mustangs went 0-10, but now things have been very successful there. Alstott shared the struggles that come with new football teams after that Oct. 7 game.
Smith has a great relationship with Alstott and talks to him frequently.
Another important aspect of all the culture Smith wants to build deals with the parents, who have been asked to pay for the football fee and booster fee in Year 1.
“The majority of the parents have been very encouraging, keeping the boys’ heads up,” Smith said. “I’ve never had as much as parent support as I’ve had here. We have a team meal typically on Thursday’s where team moms jump in and come up and serve, set it up and clean it up.”
Next season, the Panthers will be joining the Sunshine State Athletic Conference with the likes of St. Petersburg Canterbury, Keswick Christian, Shorecrest Prep, Out-of-Door Academy, Bradenton Christian, Ft. Myers Canterbury, All Saints’ Academy, Santa Fe Catholic and Zephyrhills Christian.
“Joining the SSAC allows us to get more evenly matched games,” Smith said. “This year we made our own schedule and this will help us keep the games a closer distance.”
Over half of Bell Creek’s roster, specifically, 19 players are sophomores. Smith called them the core.
“This sophomore group is some of the most talented,” he said. “They are stepping up leadership wise with the thinking that age doesn’t matter. That’s what it is really about.
“Also, we’ve got a couple kids that we know are 7th graders right now and by the time they are freshmen and those sophomores are seniors it could really be quite a group.”
In terms of the biggest strength of his young group, Smith pointed to his backfield.
“Our backfield is very talented. We have a ton of speed,” he said. “They know how to use it and we know how to set up the offense better for them. Now our offensive linemen see the potential we have.”
Running backs: Zach Swan, Devin White
Quarterbacks: Damon Mercilliot, Jaylen Wright
Fullbacks: Demani Hemley, Theron “Deuce” Nelson
The ultimate goal for Smith and the Bell Creek football staff is to continue to build that foundation.
“We want them to understand that football is not the end all be all.” he said. “They should use it to improve it in life as students and dads down the road.
“Program wise we want to build and wind championships whether it be SSAC or if we can grow to a point to get into the FHSAA, we want to be a championship team there too.”
Smith says he thinks the Panthers could win their district in the next two or three years.
Putting it all together this early is never a simple task, but Smith is working diligently day in and out to get this program on the map. I think with the dedication they are putting in from the coaching staff down to the players and parents things will get better very soon.
Bell Creek is not on the forefront of football minds, but expect the program to be part of the conservation as long as Smith is running the show in the next few years.
Jake Perper is the scout for Prep Sports Scouting. Make sure to follow along for all the updates on Twitter: @JakePerper.
If you have any questions or comments feel free to write below or email Jake at firstname.lastname@example.org.