Last year was a special one for the Eastside High School football program.
The Rams finished 8-3, which was their first winning season since 2018.
They also won their first district title in 10 years, and won a postseason game.
They did it all under former Ram and then first-year head coach Harold “Gator” Hoskins.
“Yeah, it was a great year overall,” Hoskins said.
That was followed by a brief pause.
“Last year was last year,” Hoskins said. “That’s pretty much been my message. This is a new team with new guys, new faces, so we can’t hang our hat on what happened last year. We’ve got to come out and prove it again.”
Defensive back Branden Perry has something to prove.
Perry suffered a torn labrum attempting to make a tackle but will wait until after the season to get surgery so he can put as much of his work on film as he can.
He’s been putting in the work this offseason on and off the field as he heads into his senior year at Eastside.
“I’ve been building some chemistry with my team (off the field) and perfecting my craft on,” Perry said. “On and off the field being more of a leader to the freshmen and sophomores and upcoming seniors.”
He said his senior year is valuable to him.
“It means a lot,” Perry said. “It’s one of the most important years and I’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Perry said the team’s strength heading into the season is its receiving corp.
“We have a lot of talent over there and a lot of options,” Perry said. “If somebody goes down we have like five more receivers that can back him up.”
Hoskins said the potential is unlimited at the position.
“Great group of receivers,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best group of receivers in Eastside history. We also have a great tight end.”
Rising seniors Antoneo Wilson and Antonio Hubbert combined for 1,093 yards and nine receiving touchdowns last year.
However, they must replace long-time starter Holden Johnson at quarterback, who threw for over 2,700 yards combined his final two years as a Ram.
Senior Jayden Manns, who will play defensive end and linebacker, will be one of the leaders on defense.
Manns was an All Area selection last year after leading the Rams with 16.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. He finished with 53 tackles, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup.
“Biggest strength is the defensive line,” he said. “That’s who is going to stop the ball from getting out of the backfield. We’re real big.”
It will be another challenging schedule for the Rams, but there are two games on the schedule that Perry is looking forward to the most.
“Buchholz and Bradford,” he said. “We haven’t beaten Buchholz in I think about 13 or 14 years and last year when we played Bradford they beat us once in the regular season and they beat us again in the playoffs.”
Both games are in back-to-back weeks early in the season and are followed by a Thursday home game against North Marion on Thursday, Sept. 28, in what could likely be for the Class 2S-District 7 title.
Eastside’s last win against Buchholz was 11 years ago, 13-10, in 2012. Buchholz led Eastside, 7-0, late in the first quarter last year but the game was eventually called due to weather.
It’s currently a nine-game losing streak against the Bobcats (10-3), who will host Eastside at Citizen’s Field on Sept. 8, followed by a trip to Starke to face the Tornadoes (12-2) on Sept. 15.
It’s a tough three-game stretch that could set the tone for the year.
“We’ve got to lead better and take teams one by one,” Manns said about what it will take for this to be a great season.
Eastside will open the regular season at Citizen’s Field on Friday, Aug. 25, against Inlet Grove (Riviera Beach), which advanced to the Class 2M state playoffs last year.
The Rams will host GHS on Nov. 3 in the regular season finale. They defeated the Hurricanes, 36-0, for the first time since 2008.
Hoskins is one of several coaches in the area who are former NFL players and now coaching at their alma mater in Alachua County, joining Cornelius Ingram (Hawthorne), Willie Jackson (P.K. Yonge), and Ian Scott (GHS).
“I think it’s a great thing,” Hoskins said. “Once you’ve been there, you played there, there’s more pride going in because you want to see your team doing pretty well. Me personally, I coach a little harder because I went to this school…it’s a great thing for the area.”