Marco Island Academy’s convincing 32-6 win over Gateway Charter on October 20 at Winterberry Park was the ultimate feel-good win for the island’s fledgling prep football team.
“It feels good to come back out and get a win with these guys,” Rays head coach Damon Coiro said, “They’ve worked hard. They continue to improve. We’re young. To see the kids work hard in practice and come out and get a big win like this, it feels good for them.”
The big win comes after a game effort in a 21-14 road loss to Southwest Florida Christian on October 13, when the Rays held the high scoring Kings offense in check and almost pulled an upset.
You could say the ball started bouncing the right way for the Rays against Gateway after a scoreless first quarter when hard charging running back Austin Brooks busted through the Gateway defense for a long gain. Brooks fumbled at the conclusion of the run but the pigskin squirted 10 yards further downfield where teammate Wendy Luders recovered to put the Rays in scoring position at the Gateway 20. The fortunate turn of events led to a oneyard Luders touchdown run with 5:10 left in the second quarter for the first score of the game. Kicker Josh Dacruz kicked the extra point, giving the Rays a 7-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later, the Rays forced a Gateway fumble after a pass reception to the 22 yard line. Luders picked up the loose ball and sprinted into the end zone with 3:36 left in the half.
But the Rays weren’t finished with their second quarter uprising. They quickly got the ball back and Brooks crashed over from three yards out to make it 19-0 going into halftime.
Coiro was concerned about how his young team would come out for the second half. It turns out he had reason for concern.
“We challenged our guys at halftime,” Coiro said. “We told them the first drive of the second half was the most important drive of the game.”
Gateway looked like a different team on that first drive, marching downfield on the Rays defense and scoring on a 35-yard touchdown pass. They then got the ball back and nearly scored again before big 355-pound defensive lineman Rolphendy Tanis pounced on a Gateway fumble on the Rays three yard line.
The fumble recovery helped the Rays turn the momentum back in their favor.
Coiro said he is trying to teach his young team how to handle success and adversity.
“That’s where maturity sets in,” Coiro said. “You’ve got to come out and play the second half the same way you played the first half. It’s more important how you finish than how you start. But that comes with learning how to win and knowing what it feels like to win.”
The Rays kept Gateway off the scoreboard the rest of the game and added two fourth quarter scores themselves. Freshman quarterback Kyler Howard scored on an eight-yard quarterback keeper and Luders scored his third TD of the evening on a two-yard run.
Coiro acknowledged that Howard, who was 5-7 passing for 37 yards, is making strides at the quarterback position. “He’s improving,” he said. “You know, he’s a ninth grader. We’re playing with a ninth grader at quarterback and three ninth graders on defense. As long they continue to progress we’re going to be ok. We have 28 underclassmen in the program. That’s kind of where you want to be. We just have to continue to get better on the field, in the classroom and in the community. They’re a great group of kids.”
Coiro likes the way his kids are starting to tackle.
“We’re getting better every week,” he said. “The kids are tackling better. We’re just getting a lot better at the fundamentals of the game. We’ll continue to progress at that.
“We got good production from our offensive line and a couple of our running backs and receivers.”
Brooks paced the Rays with 98 yards on just eight carries. Luders contributed 54 yards on 12 carries. Brooks and Luders give the Rays a good inside-outside running attack.
The win raises the Rays record to 3-4. All three wins have come at home. The road loss to Southwest Florida Christian was actually a good showing for the Rays against a team that has only lost one game this season.
“We held a team that has been scoring a lot of points to two offensive touchdowns,” Coiro said. “We gave up a defensive touchdown and that’s what really hurt us. We were disappointed in the outcome, but we were proud of the way our guys played and how they handled themselves.”
The young Rays team play two more games this season with a chance to equal or eclipse the six-year-old program’s best record of 4-6 in 2014.
The Rays host Evangelical Christian (3-3) on Friday, October 27 at 7 PM at Winterberry Park. It will be their final home game this season. On paper the two teams appear evenly matched. On November 3 the Rays wrap up their season with a road trip to take on St. Petersburg Catholic (2-6).