High School Football

Hammer time: How everyday tool has motivated Palmetto High football team’s perfect start

Painted red and white, opponent logos are splattered around a hammer with the words “Air Show” and “Hit Squad” scribbled on opposite sides of the handle.

The prop is something new to Palmetto High’s football team this season, and it’s provided a spark during the Tigers’ 6-0 start in 2019.

It was born during the summer with assistant coaches Greg Wahls and Pat Cucci putting it together. Each week during the season, the team crosses off an opponent’s logo after the game.

Coaches vote on the offensive and defensive player of the game, with the players choosing to have the defensive player of the game lead the team onto the field the following week with the hammer that shoots red smoke from a device attached to it.

“The hammer motivates us to smash our opponents,” junior defensive tackle Floyd Dozier Jr. said.

So far the team has crossed off six opponents. In those six wins, the Tigers have outscored opponents 201-63. Their defense has held opponents to fewer than 10 points in four of the six wins, including the last three.

“It’s a big motivation with us,” senior wide receiver LaJohntay Wester said. “It just shows all the teams we’ve got to complete off this to get to the state championship.”

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Head coach Dave Marino has led the Palmetto High football team to a 6-0 start heading into its bye week. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

The hammer also was born out of inspiration from one of Manatee County’s legendary high school coaches: Eddie Shannon.

“(He’d say), ‘Kill a mosquito with an ax,’ ” Cucci said. “We don’t want to carry an ax, we carry the sledgehammer.”

Palmetto head coach Dave Marino has called this year’s Tigers a special team several times. What makes it a team with potential to make a deep playoff run is the size up front to handle 48 minutes of physical football as well as practically every player on the roster being from Palmetto.

In the era of players freely transferring to other schools, keeping Palmetto kids together has been paramount to the Tigers’ success in 2019. But also aiding their effort was dropping into Class 6A when the Florida High School Athletic Association reclassified teams beginning with this school year.

“We bypassed 6A to go to 7A, because I was thinking like an athletic director that we need the local gates,” Marino said. “Lakewood Ranch wasn’t going to play us. Braden River, we had beaten four years in a row, they weren’t going to play us. So we basically, and I’ll take the blame, I stole two championships for this community, for these kids and for this school.

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Running back Sagel Hickson has helped Palmetto outscore its opponents 201-63 through six games. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“Because 6A, we would have been in with St. Pete and Northeast and all the teams we’ve been beating. Pinellas Park and, I don’t care, Largo, you name it, Countryside. We beat them all. And those teams would have been in our district, so we deprived our kids in those years when we beat those teams of two championships.

“And so we weathered that and we fought through it up a steep mountain to go from 5A to 7A and stand toe-to-toe and make the playoffs (the last two years) the way we did, but it’s made us better in the long run.”

The 2019 team is reminiscent of the 2011 team that advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals. That season’s team hosted the state semifinal against Miami Norland, which featured two future NFL players — running back Duke Johnson and offensive lineman Ereck Flowers.

Both later played for the University of Miami, and Johnson had a game for the ages — 356 rushing yards — in that state semifinal at Harllee Stadium where he led the Vikings back from a 20-0 deficit to send Norland past Palmetto 35-27 en route to the 5A crown.

A member of that year’s Palmetto team, Shaquille Harris, is an assistant coach with the Tigers this season. Harris was one of three skilled wide receivers, later playing at UMass, alongside E.J. Burston and Cory Crawford.

This year’s group of Wester, Eddravian Butler, Kobe Mays — who is still out injured — and Curtis Thompson reminds him of the 2011 receivers.

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Quarterback Xavier Williams and the Palmetto Tigers return to action next week with a key Class 6A-District 12 game against Punta Gorda Charlotte. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“They’ve got it,” Harris said. “They come out every day and practice like it’s game day. So when it is game day, it’s easy. So they definitely have the mentality that we had in 2011.”

The secret of a long playoff run starts with getting a district championship to automatically qualify for the playoffs and assure yourself of at least one home game. In 2011, Palmetto played three of its four playoff games at home, where the team affectionately called Harllee Stadium the “Jungle.”

The lone road game that season was the region final at Immokalee, where the Tigers won 42-21. That season’s team started 7-0, losing a nailbiting 29-26 game to rival Manatee as its lone loss until the state semifinals.

Palmetto is idle this week, and to get to where the 2011 team reached, this year’s group has to finish what it started in district victories over Port Charlotte and Braden River when it returns to action at Punta Gorda Charlotte next Friday.

“Go on the road week in, week out is tough,” Marino said. “You’ve got to be a champion to get that home-field advantage. Everybody shoots for it. NFL ... it’s huge. That’s the difference, so that’s what it’s going to take. ...

“We’ve got to finish. We’ve got to be champions and then see where our strength of schedule ranks us in terms of seeding.”

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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.