The Bulldogs will be fielding a unit of experience, while the Pirates were forced to replace graduated starters with rising sophomores.
It’s officially spring football season as the area’s high school teams prepare for their respective spring games. Flagler Palm Coast has an away matchup with Fleming Island at 7 p.m. Friday, May 18, at Fleming Island High School. Matanzas will be playing the only spring game in Flagler County as the Pirates are set to face Clay at 7 p.m. Friday at Matanzas High School.
Here's how the crosstown rivals have fared throughout the past few weeks of grueling practice:
Flagler Palm Coast
After an undefeated regular season and a district title in head coach Travis Roland’s first year with the team, the Bulldogs were sent packing with a loss to Orlando Boone in the first round of the FHSAA Playoffs.
The bitter sting has given the Bulldogs an edge, FPC’s rising senior defensive end Nelson Paul said.
“We can’t mess around,” said Paul, who led the area with 18 sacks in 2017. “Our mentality has to be shipshape. We have to make plays. We can’t go downhill. We’ve got to rise up.”
While the Bulldogs graduated several players on both sides of the ball, including former-starting quarterback Ryan Freeman, the majority of the Bulldogs’ starters from 2017, mainly on the defense, have yet to graduate.
Paul, offensive lineman Verneal Henshaw, linebacker Tallin Coates and defensive backs Dennis Shorter and Damien Irven Jr. are all rising seniors. Rising junior Donovan Montoyo, who showed flashes of brilliance with his legs as a backup signal caller last season, will start at quarterback for the Bulldogs.
“We just have to go out and make sure we can capitalize on that,” Roland said of his upperclassmen. “We have a chance to be really good. It’s going to be based on how hard we’re willing to work, to be honest with you. That’s part of the struggle, though. There’s so many guys coming back that they might get complacent. They might think that we’ve already arrived. It’s my job to make sure that nobody loses their mind and thinks that we’re better than what we are.”
One thing Roland wants to see when his team squares off against Fleming Island: Confidence.
“I want to see them come out, show up and make plays,” he said. “I want to see that we’re still hungry because it’s easy to go out there and lose your hunger. We need to come out there with energy. We have a lot to prove.”
If first-year coach Don Mathews had to assign his team a grade for its performance throughout the spring, he’d give the Pirates a C.
“Or a D-minus,” he said.
Mathews spent the past five seasons as the Pirates’ defensive coordinator, helping lead one of the best defenses in the area in 2017. He was hired to be the Pirates’ next head coach on Dec. 12 after former coach Robert Ripley announced his decision to step down.
Mathews’ first spring at the reigns of the program?
“Hectic,” he said. “I wouldn’t say overwhelming, but just doing everything, just getting all the stuff together and making sure that everything’s on time. All the intricacies that you don’t really think about as an assistant coach. I’m still learning day-to-day. It’s been a normal maturation process.”
Mathews is tasked with replacing the production of the winningest senior class in program history. The Pirates graduated a plethora of starters, including receiver Devin Mathews, defensive ends Jarrett Patton and Dru Bowens, and linebacker Tylee Austin.
Mathews was forced to replace them with rising sophomores.
“I’m feeling as good as a coach could possibly be about freshmen,” he said. “It’s a thing where sometimes they look really good and sometimes they look like freshmen. But they’re maturing and getting better every day. They’re working hard, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Come the spring game, Mathews won’t be looking at the scoreboard. He’ll be keying in on the speed and physicality with which his team plays.
“I don’t care if we’re down 100 points. I want to see people fighting to the very end,” he said. “We have a very young team and it’s going to be a maturation process. I want to see if we can get better. I want to see if we can believe in ourselves.”