High School Football

There’s a new football program in Manatee. Here’s how PCHS is building it from ground up

The grass-field parking lot flooded with cars, while the path to the home side of the football stadium was greeted by a couple students wearing stickers on their cheeks and holding custom-made signs supporting the new kid on the block.

Later, the student section that formed near the band went crazy — almost as if a state championship was won — at the close of the third quarter when Kevin Everhart scored a touchdown.

It didn’t matter that the visitors were ahead comfortably or that the team they cheered for went on to lose 35-20.

What matters is that there’s now a football team in Parrish.

Manatee County’s newest public high school, Parrish Community, is in the midst of its inaugural high school football season.

School spirit and community support for the Bulls were at a fever pitch on this night despite a loss to Sarasota Riverview’s freshman team.

“I went to school at Georgia Southern, small southern town. This is as close to that hometown atmosphere as you can get,” Parrish Community head coach Christopher Culton said. “It’s really neat, the community support. We’ve got as many people that are members of our booster club that are retired that just want to be a part (of it).

Kevin Everhart runs the ball in last week’s game against Sarasota Riverview at Parrish Community High. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“Our golf tournament, we turned away people. ... It was mostly people that were in the community that wanted something to cheer for. ... When this turns into Friday night, this place is going to be hopping.”

As a first-year school, Parrish Community has no upperclassmen. A student body of around 550-600 is mostly freshmen, with about 150-160 students who are sophomores.

For football, that translates into a junior varsity schedule this season; the Bulls are moving to varsity next season.

The Florida High School Athletic Association classified PCHS as a 4A school when the new classifications went into effect for the 2019-20 school year. There are no districts in Classes 1A-4A, leaving the Bulls free to schedule games without restricted district slots.

Fans cheer on their team during last week’s game against Sarasota Riverview at Parrish Community Hi Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

The allure of starting and building a program from scratch pried Shawn Trent from his athletic director post at Lakewood Ranch High to Parrish.

“I’ve been doing this for 20-something years, and I don’t really personally know anybody that’s gotten to open a school, especially from an athletic standpoint,” Trent said. “So kind of a cool thing to just be able to be the first person with feet on the ground and start from scratch.”

After one season leading the Mustangs, Culton also left Lakewood Ranch for Parrish.

What he encountered early on with the football team — most of the players would have gone to Palmetto High — was that half of them had never played the sport before.

Defenders Mikeal Steele, David Jackson and Tanner Cloud take on a Sarasota Riverview player during last week’s game at Parrish Community High. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“We had to go over penalties, had to go over this is the hash mark, this is the sideline, this is boundary, this is the field,” Culton said. “We broke it all the way down ... because these kids never played before.”

Based off projections from summer workout participation, Culton anticipated anywhere from 28-35 players for the Bulls’ first season. Instead, he had 72 players arrive at the beginning of fall camp with 67 who ended up dressing.

“We didn’t have enough pads, we didn’t have enough helmets,” Culton said. “The excitement was there.”

That excitement shot through Parrish, where the booming growth of the area paved the way for a new school and new football team to be born.

Fans cheer on their team during last week’s game against Sarasota Riverview at Parrish Community High. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Like Palmetto High’s “One Town, One Team,” mantra, Parrish Community isn’t one of several high schools in a town.

Instead, it’s a place that is beginning and has the chance to grow even more as the next wave of students enroll.

“This is a sleeping giant,” Culton said.

Culton said the school plans to add 26 teachers next year, which will help create more staff. Currently, most of the staff is volunteering.

Coach Christopher Culton talks with his team during last week’s game against Sarasota Riverview at Parrish Community High. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“We’ve got a chance to build a beast here,” Culton said.

Just like the backs of T-shirts sold during the game against Sarasota Riverview supporting Parrish Community High School, which read on the back, “Tradition starts now.”

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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.