By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
NORTH PORT — The North Port High School football team’s Class of 2017 has faced more adversity than any group of 17- and 18-year-olds rightly should on a football field.
Since they first donned the silver and blue three years ago, next year’s senior class has been through four coaches, seen teammates transfer and quit football together, and witnessed a postgame brawl that left five teammates suspended.
Through it all, that class has seen the Bobcats’ varsity team win just six combined games in 30 tries. And because of it, it has seen its numbers dwindle almost to zero.
As North Port prepares for its spring game tonight at Southeast, it only has seven seniors on its roster — Josh Baker, Chris Kite, Vitaly Margitich, Greg Pardue, Ryan Stahler, Kyle Trembley and Austin Van Camp. Of those seven, only six have played for the Bobcats all four years.
So why stick it out through all the struggles on and off the field? Why continue playing when so many friends and teammates have left the program?
“It’s a privilege to be a part of this program,” Margitich said. “It’s an honor to play for this school.”
Admittedly, though, it’s been trying. When Margitich and his classmates were freshmen, Billy Huthman was the varsity coach. But when North Port couldn’t find a permanent position for him at the school, he left.
Larry Detwiler took over their sophomore year, but he was relieved of his duties after a 1-9 season. The Bobcats hired Jared Powers that December, but he resigned less than two months later.
And through all that turbulence, North Port hemorrhaged players. Christian VanDerVeer and Matthew LaRoche transferred to Venice. Michael Innello left for Port Charlotte. Brennan Simms and Stantley Thomas took their talents to Charlotte. Many more stayed at North Port, but quit football altogether.
“A lot of people see the uncertainty. A lot of people see that coaches don’t stay around, they see that other players don’t want to stay around,” Trembley said. “They just want to do what’s better for them. But they’re worsening us. If we could get people to stay, it would make us better. Push us to be better.”
“If you look at all the players that could have been here,” Pardue added, “we could have easily had a .500 record last year.”
None of the remaining seniors hold any grudges against their former teammates. Some of them, Stahler said, are still among his closest friends.
But all of them are passionate about North Port football. They’ve been through just about all the trials and tribulations that can be thrown at a football team in three years. And now that they’re on their way out, they want to leave the program in better shape than it was when they first arrived.
All seven agreed they finally have right coach in place to do it. In August, Brian Hatler, who was hired a month after Powers left in March of 2015, will become the first coach in five tries to start a second regular season as coach of the Bobcats.
North Port went 2-8 in Hatler’s first season and spent weeks dealing with the fallout of an Oct. 2 fight with players from Braden River after a loss at The Preserve. But the Bobcats are on the right track.
“I think they’ve been resilient, and I think they’re becoming more comfortable with us the longer we’re here,” Hatler said of his senior class. “We’re getting to know them better, and those relationships are important in the building of trust in any organization. And that includes a high school football team.”
Whatever successes the Bobcats might eventually enjoy under Hatler, this year’s senior class won’t be around to see it. But it hopes to help lay the foundation.
“I think we’re guiding them in the right direction,” Stahler said. “The offensive line guys and the defensive line guys, we’re getting stronger. The skill guys, we’re getting faster. We’re doing better. And with all of us together, us guiding them, the guys that stick around and want to play are going to get better.
“There’s going to be a good future.”