Braden River enters 2017 season with uncertainty and injuries on defense

Braden River’s Gavyn Purdy brings down Venice’s Matt Laroche during Braden River’s game at Venice in 2016.
Braden River’s Gavyn Purdy brings down Venice’s Matt Laroche during Braden River’s game at Venice in 2016.

The biggest challenge of Braden River’s season-ending, lopsided loss to Venice may have been getting over it with the knowledge things may only become more difficult.

The Pirates weren’t used to the sort of defensive issues the Indians exposed and now they had a full offseason to dwell on it, to try to solve their issues while more than half of the starting lineup turned over.

“Faces change. Names change. Expectations don’t,” head coach Curt Bradley said. “We have an expectation on this defense — and we’ve had it since we got here — of going out there and playing hard. We’ll give up yards, but hopefully we don’t give up points. When we’ve had those great defenses, we’ve always bent, but don’t break.”

This season will be a challenge unlike one Bradley has faced while coaching the Pirates to three straight seasons of at least eight wins during the regular season. For at least the start of the season, Braden River’s defense will play with only two or three returning starters. Defensive back Tyrone Collins, a Missouri commit and the Herald’s All-Area Defensive Player of the Year last fall, is still working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Defensive end Taylor Upshaw, a Florida commit, is nursing a foot injury, which will keep him out for the start of the regular season.

Tyrone is one hell of a player. We all know that, so we’re trying to get some new players in, get a feel for them. I know myself I need to step it up. We all need to step it up.

Tyler Pawelkoski, Braden River middle linebacker

The entire corps of linebackers has turned over. All but one starter from last year’s defensive line will be missing when the season opens. The secondary is equally as unproven. Friday’s preseason classic at 7 p.m. against Lehigh in Lehigh Acres will be an important test for a defense without much experience. Lehigh reached the postseason a year ago, and hosting Braden River at Lehigh Senior High School will provide the Pirates their first glimpse at an overhauled unit before they open the regular season with three straight non-district games against playoff teams.

“I think we’ve made it a long way so far,” middle linebacker Taylor Pawelkoski said. “We’ve been watching a lot of film together, lifting every morning together, we’ve been going out, eating lunch together daily.”

Pawelkoski is the reason Bradley can say he either has two or three starters returning this fall. The linebacker was a starter early during his sophomore year before an injury knocked him out for a handful of games. He tried to return for the Pirates’ game against Venice and the Indians ran all over Braden River to deliver the Pirates their lone loss of the regular season.

194.2Yards per game allowed by Braden River during the 2017 regular season. The Pirates were the only team in Manatee County to allow fewer than 200 yards per game.

Pawelkoski wasn’t in any sort of shape to handle Venice and then the Indians did the same thing in the playoffs, steamrolling Braden River before losing to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 7A semifinals.

They were the first real blemishes in years for Braden River — 42 points in the regular-season game and 64 in the playoffs. Only one other team, St. Thomas Aquinas during the 7A semifinals in 2015, even broke 21 during the past two seasons.

“Those are the games that I go back and watch film of,” Pawelkoski said. “We know we’re going to compete again this year and we know they beat us last year, so we know what to expect and they should know what to expect, too.”

For the time being, it will mean a shifting identity for the team that boasted the best defense in Manatee County the past two years. With Collins and Upshaw both sidelined, there are no clear-cut Division I prospects on defense.

Faces change. Names change. Expectations don’t.

Curt Bradley, Braden River head coach

The offense, on the other hand, is littered with them. Deshaun Fenwick, a running back and wide receiver, has already verbally committed to South Carolina. Slot back Knowledge McDaniel has an offer total in the double digits. Wide receiver Daveon Wortham possesses a Syracuse offer. Stetson, a Football Championship Subdivision program, has reached out to Brendan Bengtsson, a tackle and guard.

“It will be a more offensive team,” McDaniel said.

Bradley, who also serves as defensive coordinator, has earned the benefit of the doubt, though. He’s excelled at finding roles for flawed players to perform at their best. He’s succeeded with undersized linebacker groups and one-dimensional defensive linemen. He emphasizes turnover creation and has consistently boasted an elite group of defensive backs because of it.

His philosophy won’t change this season even as the roster does. Typically for the Pirates, that’s been good enough to work.

“You’re never very successful if you’re changing all the time,” Bradley said. “The biggest thing for us is putting players in a position to make plays.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

Preseason classics

Braden River at Lehigh Acres Lehigh, 7 p.m.

Seminole Osceola at Saint Stephen’s, 7 p.m.

Naples St. John Neumann at Out-of-Door Academy, 7 p.m.

Bradenton Christian at St. Petersburg Catholic, 7 p.m.

Miami Carol City at IMG Academy, 7 p.m.

Cardinal Mooney at Arcadia DeSoto County, 7 p.m.

Manatee at Seffner Armwood, 7:30 p.m.*

Sarasota Booker at Palmetto, 7:30 p.m.

Sarasota Riverview at Lakewood Ranch, 7:30 p.m.

Southeast at Ruskin Lennard, 7:30 p.m.

Bayshore at St. Petersburg Dixie Hollins, 7:30 p.m.

* — Game will be televised on Spectrum Sports