Road to Lakeland: A Retrospective (pt. 1)

Images provided by: John Faith

By: Ian Curry, Class of ’24

3:24 left in the game. A 22-18 lead for the Academy. Citi Christian’s quarterback takes the snap. It goes into the air. Into someone’s hands. Into the endzone.

Except that wasn’t just a touchdown. It was a pick-six straight into the hands of Tioma Stepanets. In such a close game, any good score can turn the tides of a game, as Stepanets’s pick had.

0:58 left in the game. Now a 30-18 lead for the Academy. This time, Caleb Yann snatches the ball out of midair, runs through 85 yards of turf, and into the endzone.

36-18. That’s how the game ends. That’s the final score. But a 36-18 score in the championship doesn’t represent the game. The struggle. The drive it took. It doesn’t represent what it really took to win their second 8-Man state championship in that many years.


Coming into this season, the team had lost some of their best players, including Daniel Gonzalez, Zachary Moore, and Evan Lutz, but gained some crucial additions in new players such as Tayshawn Pendleton ‘21, Adrian Leverette ‘21, and Brandon Lemke ‘19. Also new to the team were 8th Graders Quinn McCormick, Carter Kienast, and 7th Grader Ian Curry, all acting as Assistant Managers.

The first practice on August 6 came and went. Although rusty from time off the gridiron, there was still definite hope for a second trophy. At the end of the second week of practice, the team had their annual retreat at the school, where the coaches outlined their goals for the season. Head Coach Shawn Brown spoke to the team about his ultimate dream; for the team to go undefeated on the way to a championship.

On August 24, instead of a preseason game played against Masters Academy, who backed out,  the team had an open practice and showcase of the team thus far. That ended up drenched out within the hour by a rainstorm.


The team experienced a lot of difficulties setting up a schedule for the season. Over the course of the entire season, there would be 3 canceled games, 1 forfeited by the opponent and 1 game in which one team replaced another, that game being Homecoming. The team would have started the season on September 7 against Donahue Christian, but that was canceled, being the second canceled game thus far. Instead, their season started one week later on a sunny Friday the 14th against Citi Christian Academy.

The rust of summer showed as the Wildcats pulled away with only a 24-12 win at home, but despite this, Brown ‘21 threw for 156 yards and ran for 60 yards to start the season, while Dylan Price ‘19 led on foot with 81 yards. Citi would stand down for the time being.

The next week, Academy went to their first away game of the season, going to Tarpon Springs to play the Solid Rock Community Crusaders. The year before, the Wildcats beat the Crusaders by the outstanding deficit of 80-0. As they had last year, the Wildcats put them down, but this time by a score of 53-6.

Although there was not much passing that night, with only 94 yards between Brown ‘21 and Peyton Williams ‘21, they still combined for 3 passing touchdowns. Brown ‘21 ran for another 2 touchdowns, while Williams ‘21, Price ‘19 and Amad Zarak ‘19 all got 1 touchdown each, on the way to a win.

#17 AJ Panepinto ’22 is lifted by his teammates after a PAT conversion against Solid Rock.

Another match followed the next week, this time at Canterbury. Academy has a fierce rivalry with Canterbury, especially in softball and football, our two recent state championship sports. That night’s match was no different, as both teams fought hard.

At least until an overheating light in one of the floodlights stopped the game for close to an hour. Much can be debated on whether this was, in fact, an overheated light or an excuse to end the game early. Whatever the cause of the stoppage, play eventually resumed and the game ended at 10:36 PM to the tune of a 34-13 Academy win, highlighted by 143 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns from Price ‘19.


In between the match against Canterbury and the team’s next game against Faith Christian, a school new to 8-man football, there was no break. The team practiced and perfected their play for the next three weeks.

The team’s next game was Homecoming, the grand celebration of football, the school, and life as a whole. As the biggest game of the regular season, the team had to impress. And that they did. After the singing of the American national anthem, by the school’s Boys Chorus, it was game time.

With a 31-point 2nd quarter, the Academy handily beat Faith Christian 46-13 in front of most of the school population. Headlining the night was Brown ‘21 and his 233 passing yards off of only 12 completions, 4 of which got into the endzone.

Empty benches during halftime of the Homecoming game against Faith Christian.
(provided by: 6C)

This was also the first game back for Jamaal Johnson ‘19, who had been out with an injury since the preseason. This was also the first game for new manager Emma Kittredge ‘24, bringing the managerial count up to 5 strong.

A home game was to be played the next week against St. Lucie Christian, but without warning, they canceled the rest of their season a few weeks before, leaving Academy’s team to wait for next week.


Starting the last regular season month of the year, the Wildcats had an away match against Lakeside Christian, in Clearwater. The game could have been postponed due to an intense storm a few hours before kickoff, but it cleared off in time for the game. The weather did however leave a wet and slippery field that night.

That night, Academy came out with a close 15-6 victory. There were no extremely notable stats that night, other than when Academy quarterback Brown ‘21 threw a 45 yard pass to Tioma Stepanets ‘19 for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of play.

#22 Dylan Price ’19 rushes with the ball against Lakeside Christian.

Their final regular season game was the next week in Riverview, against Bell Creek Academy. Most of their managers were gone on their respective school field trips, the 8th graders going to Appalachia and the 7th graders going to Key Largo. Even without most of their managers, the Wildcats still came out and shut out the Bell Creek Panthers 52-0, with 254 totals yards on the night.

After their final game that night, the Wildcats ate dinner together that night. And although happy with the result, they knew that their season wasn’t over.

And it wouldn’t be. Not for a while.

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