By JASON DILL
HERALD'S FORECAST: 7-3, playoff berth
In an eight-team district, every game has special importance. Teams can't afford to fall behind early, and ODA should have no trouble starting out undefeated heading into the pivotal Week 4 clash with Naples St. John Neumann. The Thunder might have overlooked the Celtics last fall. That won't happen again, and a victory over St. John Neumann coupled with easier district opponents in the second half of the season should spell a return trip to the playoffs for the Thunder.
NEEDS A BIG SEASON FROM: Evan Wilson, senior, quarterback
Evan Wilson, who enters this season bigger and stronger and with more experience, is poised for a breakout campaign.
ODA will rely on his skills for precise execution on offense.
Wilson grabbed the attention of coaches at the next level this past summer during trips to college camps. He performed well at Texas Christian University (TCU) and Tulane, the latter head coach Brett Timmons' alma mater.
Wilson's strong summer culminated with two awards at the IMG Madden Football mini-camp in late July.
He snagged Offensive MVP honors after the three-day camp. Wilson learned from IMG football director Chris Weinke and another former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL veteran in Vinny Testaverde.
"We pushed that a lot," Timmons said. "That was part of the plan, because we're a small school sometimes we don't get the respect because we are a small school as far as our competition goes. And him going out there and competing with those guys, I think it also gave him a boost of confidence knowing that he can play with some of, arguably, some of the best talent in this area. ... You learn from Chris, you learn from Vinny. ... I think just learning from those guys and soaking up the knowledge from them, he can bring that back to our program and make our program that much better."
Should ODA make a return trip to postseason football, then it will come from Wilson's solid play. He has shot up four inches, while adding about 25 pounds to his frame since December. Now standing 6-foot-2 and 175-pounds, the senior signal-caller looks more like a quarterback, even though he's always possessed the arm strength.
"I've been waiting for it. My dad's 6-3," Wilson said.
DEEP AT: Skill
The Thunder have an array of players that can perform at the wide receiver and defensive back positions. ODA's spread offense is a hallmark of the program, and Timmons has become a master in suiting his club to match the style necessary to win football games. He said 10 to 12 players are capable of playing the WR/DB spots, accounting for almost half the team. It's a luxury not many other schools, big or small, have.
THIN AT: The trenches
It's no secret that winning football is accomplished in the trenches, where solid offensive line play enables running backs to find holes and quarterbacks to have enough time to locate open receivers. That's no different at ODA, but the problem is the Thunder are really thin up front and are one injury away from major concerns, like most small schools. The line also is an inexperienced group that will earn its stripes as the season progresses.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Angus Martin, soph., tackle; Matt Murphy, junior, tackle; Austin Hoppe, soph., tailback
The 2012 ODA Thunder football team doesn't possess one potential impact newcomer in head coach Brett Timmons' eyes. It has three.
With a thin offensive line, the Thunder have two players in Martin and Murphy who are expected to provide size up front. However, that size is in length, not width: They're both 6-foot-6. They're also leaner than most linemen, hovering around 240 pounds, meaning they have quickness and speed.
Hoppe isn't new to the program, but the tailback is coming back from an injury. Timmons said Hoppe brings a meanness and a blue-collar attitude that ODA is trying to make a trademark of the football program.
Aug. 31 at St. Pete Catholic^
Sept. 7 at Community School of Naples*
Sept. 14 at Moore Haven*^
Sept. 21 NAPLES ST. JOHN NEUMANN*
Sept. 28 at Fort Myers Evangelical Christian*^
Oct. 12 IMAGINE SCHOOL OF NORTH PORT
Oct. 19 SOUTHWEST FLORIDA CHRISTIAN*
Oct. 26 NAPLES FIRST BAPTIST*
Nov. 2 SAINT STEPHEN'S*
Nov. 9 CARDINAL MOONEY
All games at 7 p.m., except ^ (7:30 p.m.)
Home games in ALL CAPS
*- Class 2A (urban)-District 6 game
THE MAIN EVENT
Sept. 21 vs. Naples St. John Neumann -- Last season's turning point came in a loss against the Celtics. St. John Neumann beat ODA 19-14 in the fourth week last fall, and the result triggered a slippery descent into mediocrity, at least by Thunder standards. ODA lost three straight, including two district games, and missed the playoffs. The Thunder's playoff hopes rest within each district matchup, and St. John Neumann is a team Timmons pointed to as a key for his club.
ST. PETE CATHOLIC W, 35-21
COMMUNITY SCHOOL OF NAPLES W, 28-12
MOORE HAVEN W, 33-6
at Naples St. John Neumann L, 19-14
FORT MYERS EVANGELICAL CHR. L, 35-14
MIAMI DADE CHRISTIAN L, 42-19
at Fort Myers Southwest Chr. W, 43-21
at Naples First Baptist L, 42-21
at Saint Stephen's W, 55-0
at Cardinal Mooney L, 23-21
5: Consecutive home games the Thunder have to close out the season.
4: Combined margin of victory for Cardinal Mooney over ODA in the bitter rivalry during the past two seasons.
3: Postseason appearances in the last four seasons.
IN THE CORNER
Brett Timmons, 37-22, seventh season
GET IN THE RING WITH: Brandon Place, wide receiver
The toughest player on my team (other than me) is: Austin Hoppe
My favorite sports movies is: "The Longest Yard"
If I were head coach for a day, I would: Run tackling drills all day
My favorite college/pro football teams are: New England Patriots
My favorite moment playing football: First touchdown catch as a sophomore