EAST MANATEE — The best thing about the Braden River football team's spring practice is that the head coach who ended last season is still the head coach.
That's no small matter for a program that has had four head coaches in seven varsity seasons.
Curt Bradley didn't take over until last summer. And when he arrived, he stood over what could be described as a psychological carnage. The Pirates head coach in 2011 quit just before spring practice, and the man who ran spring practice did it on an interim basis.
"It was pretty tough. Everybody just had to hang in there and go through it," said rising senior linebacker Marcus Balliette, a starter the past two seasons. "The hardest part was learning new defenses and offenses every time we had a new coach. I kind of saw it coming (head coach Don Purvis resigning) because one (assistant) coach at a time would start leaving. I saw his focus and desire to be with the team slack off."
It would be fair to say Bradley never had a chance in 2012, and when injuries started piling up, things disintegrated. The Pirates lost their first nine games until they ended the season with their only victory.
The first thing Bradley did when the season ended was put the team on a strength and conditioning program that centered on weightlifting.
"We are stronger, but we were so far behind we still have a ways to go," Bradley said. "We ended last season on a Friday in November, and our offseason started the following Monday. We are stronger and have closed the gap between the other teams, but are not there yet."
This spring, Bradley and his staff have focused on fundamentals while familiarizing everyone with the playbook they only had two weeks to learn before last season.
"We had to go back to fundamentals and stressing those things that are often neglected, like pad level and having a good base," Bradley said. "We had to rewind the clock and focus on the basics of blocking.
Last year, we only had about 2½ weeks to install an offensive and defensive scheme, and that wasn't fair to anyone.
"Then we suffered injuries, and we couldn't make up any ground. Now we've got everyone committed to the weight room. I heard only about eight or nine kids were lifting when I got here"
After some early attrition, the Pirates had 67 players involved in spring football. Bradley said about 50 would dress for Thursday's spring game at Cardinal Mooney, citing injuries and other issues.
The anchor of the defense is Balliette (6-foot, 210 pounds), who led the Pirates last season with more than 100 tackles.
"Winning our last game really boosted everyone's confidence and gave us a chance to see success," Balliette said. "I like our defense now. We are back to a 4-4. The coaches now show they care, and that means a lot. Every day, we try and come out and get better."
Also expected to make an impact on that side of the ball is defensive end Derek Hintze (6-3, 190), who played most of his sophomore year on the JV team.
"He has put on weight and gotten stronger. We need more kids like him in the program with his toughness and work ethic. He will be an every-down guy on defense," Bradley said.
All of last year's problems created opportunities for young, inexperienced players that should be pay dividends, particularly at quarterback with rising junior Dusty Peebles (6-1, 180), who started about five games last season.
"He is our starter. His arm strength and ability to read defenses have improved. Dusty is a good athlete with a great work ethic, a coach's dream," Bradley said.
He should have some good protection up front led by rising senior offensive guard Grant Gilligan (6-2, 225), whom Bradley calls his best offensive lineman.
Davion Banks is expected to get most of the reps at running back against Cardinal Mooney with Caleb Ford out with a toe injury.
"The kids are starting to understand and know what is expected of them, and we are definitely more experienced because of all the young kids we played last year," the coach said. "There are setbacks, but we are getting better and see daily improvement. We are trying to climb back up and the kids want to get better. We are work in progress"