Following back-to-back winless seasons, the St. Francis Catholic Academy football team finally got in the win column.
The Wolves finished 1-8 in 2022, but it was a step in the right direction.
“I was able to get out there and start to develop a culture with these guys, win a game for the first time in two and a half years,” said head coach James Langham, who enters his second season with the Wolves. “We were competitive in about three or four other games, which hadn’t been happening in this program. I think really for me it showed that the boys can do it.”
St. Francis Catholic snapped a 25-game losing streak with a 12-2 win at home against First Academy (Leesburg) on Sept. 16. It was their first win on the football field since Oct. 11, 2019.
“They know now they can do it as well, which I think is very important for their self-confidence and understanding of ‘oh, we’re capable of doing this,’” Langham said. “And I think for me, from my perspective now, knowing what they’re good at, what they may not be as good at, and now designing things and putting things in place to mask our deficiencies, or really show what our strengths are and focus on that.”
With seven starters returning on offense and seven starters returning on defense, Langham has set the bar higher. He noted that his team looks 10 times better at this point than they did a year ago.
Langham expects his team to be competitive in every game, finish anywhere between .500 and 7-3, and “continue to grow and reinvent Saint Francis Catholic Academy football into the preeminent alternative for a small football program within NC Florida that competes year in and year out that kids want to play for.”
One of the key returnees is Devin Rollins, who played running back last year, is transitioning to a flex/athlete player this season and will also play middle linebacker.
“He’s going to be very dynamic,” Langham said. “He’s a vocal leader. He’s a leader that leads by example. He’s a hard hitter, but he does everything right. I’d say he’s one of the smarter football IQ guys on this team.”
Quarterback Cooper Lieffers, who split time at QB with rising junior Johnny O’Donnell last year, will be the nucleus of the offense.
“We kind of experimented moving him to receiver but we’ve settled into him being quarterback,” Langham said. “Honestly, he’s worked his butt off to get where he’s at now. He’s definitely a more dynamic playmaker than he was last year. He’s not as timid anymore.”
The rising senior threw a pair of touchdowns last year and also averaged almost 10 yards per carry in limited rushing attempts.
“I’m looking forward to being a senior-heavy team,” Lieffers said. “Everyone knows what they’re doing, and everyone knows the schemes. We have a new offensive scheme. It just looks like it’s going to contribute to the size of our team.”
Langham said his fundamentals look better.
“There’s always room for improvement but I think him leading the team at the quarterback position is going to be a focal point of our offense this year and I think it will surprise a lot of people with what we’re able to do with him this year,” he said.
Pedro Viana, who was second in tackles as a junior, will play running back and defensive end.
“He’s really worked to get not only faster, bigger, but quicker, and I think you’re going to see that reflected in his ability to not only gain yards on the ground but also gain yards through the air,” Langham said. “He’s become a dynamic running back for us, a guy that can play every down, and then opposing offenses are going to have to worry about him because he’s back playing defensive end.”
The defense should be able to create pressure and force turnovers, while the offense looks to attack in open space.
Senior Anthony Davila will be competing in the trenches on both sides of the ball as the team’s center and defensive tackle.
“I’m looking forward to teaching the younger guys what to do, where to get set, and how to play the game, and show them the love that I have for this game,” he said. “I think we’re going to win games on defense.”
The Wolves, who are independent again but hope to jump back into the FHSAA next season, have eight news teams on their schedule.
They dropped rival Oak Hall School and will play a challenging schedule, including the season opener at Class 2S Lake Weir (Ocala) on Aug. 25, and at P.K. Yonge and Father Lopez (Daytona Beach), which both made the Class 1S playoffs last year.
“I think we’re up to the task,” Langham said. “We’re a more experienced team now, we’re upperclassmen heavy this year compared to last year, and I think that’s going to help us not only be competitive but win some of these 50/50 games as well.”