Joe Szymanski is coming back home.
The new head football coach of the Santa Fe football team, Szymanski played football for the Raiders in the ’90s and was part of the last state championship team in Alachua in 1994.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Being able to come back home and try to get our program back on the right track again.”
Szymanski, who served as the head coach at Interlachen during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, was the offensive coordinator at Union County (Lake Butler) last year.
He takes over a Santa Fe football program that was winless in 2021 (0-9) and has not had a record above .500 since the 2015 season when the Raiders finished 9-4 under Bill Wiles.
“He knows what he’s doing,’ said senior Karl Johnson, who will play defensive end and some wide receiver. “He’s getting rid of the bad and installing a whole new system, so I’m looking forward to it.”
According to Szymanski, Santa Fe has been averaging around 70 kids during summer workouts but out of that number 46 are freshmen and sophomores.
“We’ve got really good talent, we’re just really young this year,” he said.
The defense is a team strength and should set the tone early until the offense evolves, although the skill positions on offense are pretty good as well, according to Szymanski.
The offense is changing quite a bit from last year to this year with Szymanski calling the offensive plays.
“He knows what he’s doing on the offensive side of the ball,” said senior offensive lineman Nolan Nelson, who will play center. “It’s simple. It just makes sense.”
Senior James Smith, who transferred in from Texas at the end of last football season, will start the season at quarterback.
“He’s a really smart athlete,” Szymanski said. “He did not play quarterback last year. He’s a wide receiver that we kind of transformed into a quarterback. He’s very athletic and throws the ball well enough and runs the ball really well.”
Senior Kaleb Johnson (25 catches for 205 yards in 6 games) will be one of the top wide receiver targets, along with slot receiver Elijah Kellum (20 catches for 284 yards in eight games), following the graduation of leading receiver Devan Mitchum.
Kellum, a junior, runs a 10.8 in the 100-meter dash.
“Both of those guys are really explosive,” Szymanski said.
Johnson, who will also play defensive back, came in second at the state track finals in the high jump. He said there are three keys to a successful season this year.
“We have to stay focused, do our assignments, and execute,” he said.
This summer, the Raiders went to a 7X7 competition at The Villages and one at the University of Central Florida, giving the younger guys an opportunity to get some valuable playing time.
Senior Gerry Davis, who will play right guard and defensive tackle, actually thinks the offense is ahead of the defense.
“But it’s a tough decision,” he said. “I’d probably go offense because they’ve put in a lot of work, they’ve stayed consistent, and taken the weight room serious.”
The defensive line is solid all the way across according to Szymanski.
Senior Blake McCormick, who averaged six tackles per game last year, is the team’s leading returning tackler and will play inside linebacker. The secondary is also talented.
Santa Fe will compete in Class 2 Suburban and compete in District 7 (2S-7) with Eastside and North Marion (Citra).
Szymanski said the key to a successful season will be to get better every ball game.
“If we can improve every week, wins and losses will eventually take care of themselves,” he said. “But coming in as young as we are and the schedule we’ve got we know it’s going to be tough, so we just need to get better every week and win more than they have in the past couple of years.”
Santa Fe will play four games against Alachua County teams, including the regular season opener at rival Newberry on Friday, Aug. 26.
“Any time we play anybody from the county we want to win those ballgames,” Szymanski said. “We’ve talked about that with our kids. It’s one of our goals to win all in-county games as well as district games. It’s always a big rivalry.”
Last year the Panthers edged the Raiders, 27-20, in Alachua. The game was tied 13-13 at the half and just a one-score game entering the fourth quarter.
“There’s always been history, but last year there was a lot of history,” Davis said. “We really need to beat them this year.”
The Raiders will play their Kickoff Classic at West Nassau (Callahan) on Friday, Aug. 19.
“We’ve got a very tough schedule,” Szymanski said. “All of the teams on our schedule are really well coached and athletic.”