High School Football

From 15 losses in row to 3-0 start. Here’s how Lakewood Ranch football is changing its culture

The stands were filled on the home side with an intense, emotionally charged crowd glued to the action.

The scene came from Lakewood Ranch High, where the Mustangs were aiming to start 3-0 for just the second time this century.

And when the Mustangs’ defense stood tall following Michael Cucci’s fifth touchdown reception that sealed a 42-35 overtime victory, the fans and players celebrated wildly.

It’s a scene in stark contrast to what’s happened at the East Manatee County high school over the past couple seasons.

On their third head coach in three seasons, the Mustangs entered 2019 on a 15-game losing streak for on-field play. A loss to Braden River in 2017 was later ruled a forfeit win for the use of an ineligible player.

Lakewood Ranch was 0-10 last year using a triple-option offensive system. Former coach Christopher Culton is building the new program at Parrish Community High School, which left Lakewood Ranch’s job open.

That’s when Rashad West, who previously played and later coached at Southeast High, was hired. Lakewood Ranch was West’s first coaching gig in 2002 when he was an assistant.

Michael Cucci had five touchdown receptions during Lakewood Ranch’s overtime win against North Port in Week 4. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“The first thing in Year One is just getting them to believe in us and trust us in what we’re saying and what we’re selling,” said West, whose team is idle in Week 5. “And change the way we work. They bought in during the summer. We asked them to do some things they hadn’t done in the past to hopefully get different results and we’re fortunate for that so far.

“But the biggest thing is kind of changing their mindset and having them focus on what we want them to do.”

West said the community is excited about what the kids are doing, and it’s created a good environment.

“It says we’ve got a good group of seniors that are leading that don’t want to go out, that want to get that taste out of their mouth from last year,” West said. “So I think that’s what it says a lot is our kids have been resilient and they want to be different, they want to be better.”

LR Rashad West.JPG
Rashad West is in his first season as Lakewood Ranch’s football coach. Bradenton Herald file photo

The seniors endured a rough patch over the past few seasons. Lakewood Ranch, which opened in the late 1990s and once played Estero and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in back-to-back region semifinals, was a shell of its former glory.

A 15-game losing streak and staff turnover can do that, yet the senior group didn’t quit and look for greener pastures in the day of a free transfer market.

“We all wanted to compete. We didn’t just want to quit,” Cucci said. “We’re not quitters. Yeah, last year maybe we had reasons but we wanted to play football. We wanted to play football. We don’t care about the hoorah at Braden River or Venice. We don’t care about them. We’ve been here three years.

“Most of the seniors have been here all three years and an 0-10 season is not going to bring us down and make us want to quit football or stop competing. We all just like to compete and we’re glad we got another year here at Lakewood Ranch.”

Senior safety Dylan Bennett on Lakewood Ranch’s turnaround: “No one really cared. It was like, ‘The Mustangs aren’t all that good.’ Then new coaches came in, different mindset, different work. Put in the work over summer, a lot of work ... and we got it done.” Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Added senior safety Dylan Bennett: “No one really cared. It was like, ‘The Mustangs aren’t all that good.’ Then new coaches came in, different mindset, different work. Put in the work over summer, a lot of work ... and we got it done.”

While other athletic programs flourished at Lakewood Ranch — the boys golf team won three state titles in a row, the softball and basketball teams have played for state titles, to name a few — the football team descended into mediocrity and struggled mightily.

“Last year was rock bottom,” Cucci said. “Going 0-10, everyone just throwing it in your face like, ‘Wow, you went 0-10, you suck, blah, blah, blah.’ We learned to just take that as a fuel.”

The summer work was the foundation for the early fall’s success. The Mustangs went 3-0 in 2017 with an early-season game against Palmetto postponed because of inclement weather. The Tigers later walloped Lakewood Ranch as the second loss of what became a 15-game losing streak.

Lakewood Ranch’s Isaiah Harrison tries to break free from a tackler during the Mustangs’ Week 4 overtime win against North Port. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

But all the work put into the summer and in fall camp didn’t erase Friday night memories of being on the losing side. Getting the players to believe in the culture change meant registering a different result in games.

And on Aug. 29 in the season opener at Englewood Lemon Bay, the Mustangs broke the losing streak that stretched to 2017.

“Right when we won that game, I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a different year. It’s the new Ranch. We’re going to prove to people that we can win football games,’” said Cucci, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver.

Sure, Lakewood Ranch has the meat of its schedule upcoming with district foes Manatee, Venice and Sarasota along with games with St. Petersburg Dixie Hollins, Seminole and Tampa Christian Academy, but the Mustangs played a similar schedule last year and didn’t win a game.

Troy Jefferson and the Lakewood Ranch Mustangs have an open week before facing the Manatee Hurricanes on Sept. 27. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“It’s exciting. We’re building a lot of stuff, finally getting wins,” Bennett said.

No matter what happens from this point forward, the seniors are aiming to create a better legacy than when they started.

“We’re definitely trying to make sure the young guys know what they’re doing so when we leave it will be the same mentality,” Bennett said.

Added Cucci: “We’re trying to leave a legacy. ... We want kids to realize, ‘Yeah, Lakewood Ranch is good. People want to play here.’ We want that legacy to be here.”

Josiah Losada and the Lakewood Ranch Mustangs have run out to a 3-0 record this season. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

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Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.