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Braden River football preview 2017: Experienced Pirates seeking high goals

The Braden River defense struggled to stop Venice’s Matt Laroche in two meetings in 2016, and better tackling was a big emphasis leading into this season as the Pirates look for a deep postseason run.
The Braden River defense struggled to stop Venice’s Matt Laroche in two meetings in 2016, and better tackling was a big emphasis leading into this season as the Pirates look for a deep postseason run. sports@bradenton.com

At a glance

Herald’s forecast: 9-1

The team is loaded with playmakers and Division I talent, but injuries are costing star defensive back Tyrone Collins (ACL tear) and defensive lineman/University of Florida commit Taylor Upshaw (sprained foot) the start of the season. Still, the Pirates are expected to contend for a district title and seem positioned for a deep playoff run with an explosive backfield in Deshaun Fenwick and Knowledge McDaniel working behind an experienced offensive line.

Deep at: Skill. The Pirates boast multiple skill players who are committed to Power 5 conferences or are getting Division I interest.

Thin at: Linebackers. It’s an inexperienced group after multi-year starter Noah Arce and Matthew Haftke graduated off last year’s team.

Head coach: Curt Bradley

Career: Sixth season, 38-17

Needs a big season from: Its linebackers

A glaring weakness in Braden River’s playoff loss last season was its porous tackling attempts at Venice’s Matt “Speedy” Laroche, who keyed the Indians’ 64-42 win that ended the Pirates’ title hopes.

It’s a game that the Pirates’ newest batch of linebackers, Jesse Joseph, Taylor Pawelkoski and Jackson Dietz, still discuss many months removed from the 2016 season.

“That was the biggest game I’ve ever played in,” said Pawelkoski, who received playing time late in 2016 after recovering from an undisclosed injury. “After playing in that game, we just need to get better.”

The trio are following a recent history of standout linebackers to patrol Braden River’s defense. Previous starters such as Chase Balliette, Ronnie McClellan, Noah Arce and Matthew Haftke spent multiple years in their linebacker roles. Even Florida International’s JoJo Louis came into the picture as a hybrid linebacker/defensive back at times.

This year’s group is aiming to transition into that successor role and leave its own mark on a program with high expectations this season.

To do so, they’ve performed extra tackling drills during fall practices.

“We rally to the football,” Joseph said.

Added Dietz: “We make sure we are able to use the right sort of tackle, so we don’t mess up, trip up our own teammates and make sure we tackle.”

1,254Rushing and receiving yards for running back/wide receiver Deshaun Fenwick, a South Carolina commit, as a junior last season.

49.4New QB Bryan Gagg’s scoring production, either with his arm or legs during his two years as Sarasota High’s starter.

.714Combined winning percentage in 2016 from the four new additions to Braden River’s schedule. Three of those four teams made the playoffs in 2016.

Schedule breakdown

Who’s in: Chatfield (Littleton, Colo.), Manatee, Sarasota Booker, St. Petersburg

Who’s out: Bayshore, Cape Coral Ida Baker, Leesburg, St. Pete Gibbs

Upgrade: Swapped out three overmatched teams with three playoff teams and one (Booker) on the cusp of a playoff berth. The Manatee game is long overdue and has considerable hype.

Impact newcomer

Bryan Gagg, Jr., QB

It’s rare to find a new quarterback with varsity experience, but that’s precisely what Braden River has in Gagg – he transferred from district rival Sarasota High during the offseason. Gagg’s addition keeps the Pirates’ passing game sharp under offensive coordinator Eric Sanders, while possessing some skillful weapons with Deshaun Fenwick and Knowledge McDaniel.

“I just have to do my part and not try to do too much,” Gagg said. “We have a ton of athletes here. … So not try to do too much with them (and) just play my role on the offense.”

2017 schedule

Games start at 7:30 p.m. unless noted

Aug. 24

Chatfield (Littleton, Colo.), 6 p.m.**

Sept. 1

Clearwater

Sept. 8

at Manatee

Sept. 15

at Palmetto*

Sept. 29

Venice*

Oct. 6

at Sarasota Booker

Oct. 13

at Sarasota*

Oct. 20

Lakewood Ranch*

Oct. 27

North Port*

Nov. 3

at St. Petersburg

*-Class 7A-District 11 game; **-Neutral-site game played at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista

2016 results

Bayshore

W, 36-0

Cape Coral Ida Baker

W, 42-14

Lakewood Ranch

W, 31-7

Leesburg

W, 55-7

North Port

W, 38-0

Venice

L, 42-35

Palmetto

W, 35-0

Sarasota

W, 42-7

St. Pete Gibbs

W, 35-14

Class 7A playoffs

Naples Gulf Coast

W, 37-21

Venice

L, 64-42

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