Ridaught: Trust, winning restored for Eastside football

(From left) Eastside coach Harold 'Gator' Hoskins with players (and parents) Re'sean Mays, Thomas Young, J.T. Servance, Jayden Manns and Ae'nali Brown as they sign their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday.
(From left) Eastside coach Harold 'Gator' Hoskins with players (and parents) Re'sean Mays, Thomas Young, J.T. Servance, Jayden Manns and Ae'Nali Brown as they sign their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday.
Photo by Derek Gonsoulin

The Eastside football program is making a big splash in 2024, which is a far cry from last year.

The Rams had no one sign to play college football in 2022-23, but in the past two months, a total of 11 seniors have signed to play at the next level.

In February, two players signed their National Letter of Intent (NLI) on National Signing Day as Joshua Benjamin inked with Johnson C. University and Chris Bishop signed with St. Thomas University.

“When you have the parents walk with these kids and they look at you and say, ‘Coach, you told me and it happened,’ it means a lot that they believed in me,” Eastside coach Harold “Gator” Hoskins said during the signings on NSD. “They trusted me and my coaching staff to get it done.”

That trust began a couple of years ago when the former alum, who also played college and professional football, became Eastside’s new head coach in 2022.

Prior to his arrival, Eastside had a 3-19 record the previous two seasons and they hadn’t had a winning season since 2018.

But that changed quickly.

In year one under Hoskins, Eastside (8-3) won its first district title in 10 years.

That same year, the Rams shut out rival GHS, 36-0, for their first win in the series since 2008.

They also won a first-round playoff game with a 27-14 win against North Marion in the Class 2S state playoffs.

They carried the momentum into Hoskins’ second season, finishing with an 8-4 record and another district title.

The No. 4 seed Rams defeated No. 5 seed Palatka, 28-27, at home in the first round of last year’s FHSAA Class 2S state playoffs, before losing on the road the following week at eventual state runner-up Bradford (Starke), 28-7.

They are reaping the benefits of winning.

Last month the number of college signees expanded to six as Claude Whitford, Antoneo Wilson, DJ Anderson and Antonio Hubbert signed letters of intent to play college football.

On Wednesday, that total grew to 11.

“Having 11 players sign in two months is a dam-bursting moment for us,” said Eastside Athletics Director Derek Gonsoulin. “The talent is here that can play college football and will be for years. It started with Chris Bishop and Joshua Benjamin on National Signing Day, and it made others want to join them.”

The five players who signed on Wednesday include 5’9, 350-pound NG/G Re’sean Mays (Brevard College) and Livingstone College signees Thomas Young III (6’, 165, CB/WR/FS), J.T. Servance (6’1, 245, DT/NG), captain Jayden Manns (5’11, 210, MLB/OLB), and Ae’Nali Brown (6’3, 205, T), who was a first team All Area offensive lineman this past year.

Hoskins said that Mays, a P.K. Yonge transfer who is also known as “Pancake,” brought leadership, hard work, dedication, and sacrifice to the program.

“I’m extremely proud of you,” he said as he addressed those in attendance at the EHS media center. “I’m excited that you joined our team this year. You showed the boys the true definition of being a Ram even though you didn’t go here all four years, you came in and you definitely embodied being a Ram.”

Hoskins also noted that during a team meeting this year Brown stepped up and said what needed to be said and “kind of turned our season around.”

According to Hoskins, Manns, a MLB/OLB, did a complete 180.

He was proud of the turnaround.

“You really have to know where a kid started to know where he is,” Hoskins said. “I met Jayden in the ninth grade, a kid that was full of energy…seemed like he had to do the wrong thing all the time. He had an injury his sophomore year but since then it’s been a different Jayden. He’s been all about ball, been a leader, gave it everything he had.”

Manns played the majority of the 2023 season with a torn ACL.

“To do that just tells you right there what type of person he is,” Hoskins said. “He didn’t complain. He didn’t have the type of season that he wanted but he was out there on one leg, and he showed up to work every single day and gave it everything that he had. He was definitely a leader of this team.”

The quintet adds to what may be the biggest signing class of all time at Eastside.

“I’ll quote Principal Williams on what these signings mean, ‘the signings are huge and life-changing for some of these kids. It’s what it’s all about,’” Gonsoulin said. “There’s a sense of community you can’t fake in the Eastside. These players are a great example of this.”

You bleed orange and green whether you are new to Eastside football or have been involved with Eastside for years.

“Re’sean Mays was only here one year and the team’s reaction to him saying at Wednesday’s signings that he came to Eastside because of that community and the team’s reaction back was amazing,” Gonsoulin said. “It’s infectious. This can also make it harder to leave. We hope seeing these players continue their playing careers and education across the country makes future classes want to do the same.”

It all begins at the top with Hoskins.

“Gator is a Ram,” Gonsoulin said. “He doesn’t have to talk about it. The players know it and they follow him. He’s a focused, driven coach.”

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