The Santa Fe football team has something to prove this season.
Last year, the Raiders (1-9) managed to win just one game under first-year head coach Joe Szymanski.
“Going into the first season we came into a situation where we were needing a lot of work,” Szymanski said. “We spent most of the season last year trying to change the culture and the mindset of the kids and I think we really succeeded in that. By the end of the season, the kids were bought into what we wanted to do.”
They’ve built on that momentum this summer.
“Going into this season, it’s carried over,” Szymanski said. “We’ve had a really great offseason.”
This year’s team is really young with only has five seniors, which bodes well for the future.
“We’re just going to keep building,” Szymanski said. “When we got there, we decided we wanted to build from the ground up doing it the right way and we’re headed in that right direction.”
Senior defensive tackle Zavien Lee is motivated to help his coach bring back its once proud tradition of winning football games.
“We were on the map but I feel like we’ve fallen off,” Lee said. “But like coach said we’re building a team, so I feel like it’s my role to motivate everybody. I feel like we’ve got something to prove, and we’re going to put Santa Fe back on the map and people are going to know who we are.”
Szymanski said that in order for the program to get back to where it once was it’s going to take everyone buying in.
“The community is great, Alachua and High Springs, have them keep supporting us while we’re growing and building here,” he said. “It’s going to take a big season to get us back to where we want to be.”
Lee is excited about his final season.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “There’s not really a lot of pressure on me but I feel like I’m putting this pressure on me just to lead as an example and be a role model for the team.”
A total of 32 sophomores will be in uniform.
“That group works hard,” Szymanski said. “They’re very talented. We don’t have the attitude and the issues. We’ve got the guys thinking the way we want them to think and doing what we want them to do and it’s going to pay off in the future for us.”
Junior left tackle Aiden Minshew is optimistic.
“We’ve worked pretty hard over the summer and I think we’ll do better this upcoming year,” he said.
Santa Fe only averaged 12 points per game in 2022, but Minshew likes what he is seeing on the offensive side of the ball.
“The offensive linemen are looking a lot stronger, the receivers are catching a lot more of the balls that are being thrown at them, everything is looking a lot better,” he said.
Minshew said the team’s biggest strength is its youth.
“We have a pretty young team so we have a lot more time for them to get stronger, for them to get better,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lee said the team’s mindset is its biggest strength.
“We’ve worked so hard for this that it’s hard to take it away from us,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting no matter what. We want it bad.”
Santa Fe, which will host West Nassau (Callahan) in the Kickoff Classic on Friday, Aug. 18, will play a tough schedule that includes nine teams who made the playoffs last year.
“I inherited the schedule when I got here,” Szymanski said. “It’s a two-year schedule. Everyone on our schedule is really competitive and really good.”
GHS is the only opponent on their schedule that didn’t make the playoffs last year. The Raiders defeated the Hurricanes, 14-7, for their only win of the season last September.
The Raiders will once again compete in Class 2S-District 7 with North Marion (Citra) and Eastside. They will travel to North Marion on September 15 and host the Rams on Oct. 27.
Santa Fe will open the season against Alachua County rival Newberry on Friday, Aug. 25.
“Big rivalry,” Szymanski said. “It’s always been the first game, I think, since they both started playing football. It’s a lot of fun. Those kids know each other. There’s a lot of bragging rights on the line.”