Like others in the area and across the nation, the Nease High football team got sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the message of leadership and finishing strong was carried throughout the program, physically and mentally.
The Panthers struggled last year, often late in the game, finishing with a 1-9 record, which included a 21-14 loss to rival Ponte Vedra in a game Nease led until the final 11/2 minutes.
That is one of the main issues second-year coach Collin Drafts addressed heading into Friday’s season opener against the Sharks.
“We just didn’t know how to finish, and that’s exactly what we’ve been focusing on,” Drafts said. “We’re right there with the game on the line, and somebody just needs to step up and make one, two or three more plays and you’re looking at a completely different season. That has to be learned. It’s a mentality.”
And mentality was a big focus of preparation this season, given that physical practices were cut out for months due to the pandemic. Drafts, who was hired in May 2019, said he missed out on the early practices last year and was looking forward to having that extra time to prepare with the team this year. COVID had other plans.
“I remember sending the kids home right before spring break and saying, ‘Enjoy your week off, and I’ll see you next week, and we’ll keep it rolling,’” Drafts said. “Of course, I didn’t get to see the kids again until June 15, so it was three months without being able to see the kids.
“I’m really proud of the way our coaching staff handled it, and especially the kids that during that first quarantine early in the year and everybody was out of school in spring of this year and nobody knew what to expect, I feel like our guys did a really good job of staying connected virtually.”
Drafts said the team would conduct Zoom meetings once a week and boasted a nearly 100% attendance rate. Players were also expected to do at-home workouts four times a week, recording their sessions and sending the videos to coaches.
“The work we were able to do virtually, which was really new for everybody, I was really pleased with,” Drafts said. “I felt like we did the best we could with the hand we were dealt. Once we were finally able to get back in action June 15, it was like we hadn’t really skipped a beat because we didn’t really take three months off.”
The team is also being diligent with its safety precautions: practicing social distancing, wearing masks, wiping down the weight room and equipment multiple times a day. Drafts said the staff has been good at communicating the importance of staying safe to the players, as well.
“We’re lucky we’re getting to play the game we love right now, so let’s do everything we can to make sure to protect it,” he said.
Now, with practices underway and the season set to begin, Drafts is focused on fundamentals and developing team leadership.
“We did a lot this offseason with leadership training and to put more ownership and responsibility on them,” Drafts said.
Nease’s roster is still relatively young, but the Panthers did incur some losses of standout players, including quarterback Joe Nieves, who signed to play with Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. Taking over his role will likely be either junior Gabe Ohlson or senior Will Carne, a transfer from St. Joseph’s Academy.
“It’s those two guys battling it out for the starting spot. It’s been a quarterback competition,” Drafts said. “I haven’t officially named a starter for Week 1.”
Overall, Drafts said he aims to rebuild and re-establish Nease as one of the premiere programs in St. Johns County, which it has been before.
“The wins will come when you’re doing all the other things the right way,” he said.