EAST MANATEE -- Things have never been easy for the Braden River football program.
Since it played its first full season of varsity football in 2008, it has been inundated with tragedy and disappointment.
Consider: Its first head coach, a popular person who was loved by nearly everyone, is in prison for DUI manslaughter. The coached who replaced him stayed one year, and the coach who replaced him quit after two years.
Now the program faces its first winless season. If the host Pirates cannot beat Naples Palmetto Ridge (1-8) on Friday night, they will finish 0-10.
But there is hope, says senior Austin Rain, who has played under three head football coaches in his four years at the school. The running back says the Pirates have the right guy in first-year head coach Curt Bradley.
"He has come here to coach guys he has never known and everybody loves him," Rain said. "He is handling things the best that he can. I see a bright future because the kids
are going to start getting it. Overall, we stuck together as a team and are a family."
Bradley was a late replacement for Don Purvis, who quit last spring after two seasons. He came in late, trying to install a new offense, and was confronted with an incredible number of injuries.
Among the 15 players who comprised the starting lineup (offense and defense) on opening day, eight are no longer with team because of injuries.
Those personnel losses, coupled with trying to change an offensive philosophy from a spread-it-out scheme to a physical, downhill running game, has made things tough. But Bradley has refused to use injuries as an excuse.
"We take the next-man-in philosophy. There have been injuries, but it's football. You have to deal with it and move on," Bradley said. "The good thing is that these kids are resilient. They've been through a lot during their careers here and have shown a lot of perseverance."
One of the crushing blows came early in the season when Dylan Lee had a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game. In the first regular season game, Rain suffered a shoulder injury that shelved him for the next four games.
"Those were two guys in the backfield who were going to play a significant amount," Bradley said. "But I am growing as a person and coach and trying to get better each day. We've played 12 to 14 sophomores in every game this year, so our young guys are getting valuable experience. We are just trying to figure out the right mix and mesh and go from there."
Few have suffered as much as Rain, who figured to be the Pirates' feature back and a possible 1,000-yard rusher. His style fit perfectly into the run game Bradley wanted to implement because of his ability to run inside the tackles.
Rain missed nearly all of his junior year with a torn Achilles tendon. He separated the AC joint in his shoulder and separated tendons in the first game of this season. He came back too soon and reinjured himself.
"For me personally, it's been rough because this is my senior year, but we've all been trying and giving it our all," Rain said. "Life is all about your crossroads. You are going to go through a lot of that and it's how you respond. We've had to learn a new system and because of injuries a lot of guys are going both ways, so it's hard to get people well-rested."
The most difficult time for Bradley is the moment after the games and he is hoping Friday night will bring a different ending.
"The hardest part is after the game when you see the look of dejection in their face. They've given it so much and they've come up short and we've come up short as a program," Bradley said. "To win this game would mean a lot. It's not how you start. It's how you finish. To win would be great for the seniors and everyone in the program. It would give us momentum going into next year."