Everyone can agree it has been a most unusual year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdown and social distancing restrictions.
High school football in South Florida, what there has been of it so far, with public school programs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties still not up and running yet, has not been immune either.
Only a smattering of private schools have managed to get their seasons started and Thursday night brought an even more unusual arrangement.
That’s when TRU Prep. Academy, a new school opened by former Monsignor Pace coach Mario Smith two years ago, saw its brand new football program play its first game as the Saints hosted Winter Haven Akelynn Christian Academy in a Kickoff Classic at Dade Christian’s Wooten Field.
But only about 25 percent of the roster actually consisted of TRU Prep players. The other 75 percent? Those players, led by quarterback Nick Vattiato, played for University School last season and were supposed to play for the Sharks this year.
Thus the result of Thursday night’s contest was predictable as the Saints, led by Vattiato and some other U. School players, easily mowed down Akelynn Christian 44-6 before a modest crowd of friends and family members of the team.
Confused? Hang in there. We’ll explain.
When University School administrators announced a month ago that all fall sports — including football — would be postponed in 2020, that left a whole bunch Sharks players, including 13 seniors frustrated and not knowing what to do.
“It was about a month ago that I got a phone call from somebody, not from the school but an individual close to the program, who threw out the idea about seeing if we would be willing to let the kids play for our program independent from the school,” said Smith, who played at Monsignor Pace in the early 90s, starred for Bill Snyder at Kansas State, won a Grey Cup title playing for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1999 and was Pace’s head coach from 2012-14. “I welcomed the idea and even though it was a challenge, we managed to quickly work everything out.”
According to Smith, a total of 47 players are on the TRU Prep roster and 35 of those played for University last season. To be clear, the players are still students at the school and will attend classes during the day before heading south in the afternoon to practice for TRU Prep. The Saints will play as an independent and not be part of the FHSAA state series.
Since he is employed by the school, University coach Daniel Luque himself cannot be involved with the team but his contract assistant coaches, two of whom are former Dolphins Channing Crowder and Chris Chambers, can and will be working with Smith during the season on what will be a meshed staff.
“It was disappointing when we learned that there would be no season here, but I was excited when the possibility of our kids being able to play somewhere came up,” said Luque, who arrived in 2015 to rebuild a program that won a state title in 2012 but had slipped back down and came within an eyelash of a 4A state title game berth two years ago, losing to Cocoa 32-31 in a state semifinal. “It’s pretty much just like other sports like soccer that have travel teams. Kids go to school and then go play travel ball. That’s what these kids will do and it was important especially for our 13 seniors who really needed a place to play in order to get some interest from colleges.”
Luque said that he will continue to serve as an “advisor” for his players in school in terms of contacting college coaches and helping get them placed.
“This isn’t about me, this about the kids and doing everything you can to help them,” Luque said. “Where would those seniors be right now without a place to play this year.”
Luque watched from the press box on Thursday night and got to enjoy one of his star pupils, Vattiato enjoy a big night. Even though he only threw seven passes, Vattiato competed six of them for 168 yards and 2 touchdown passes of 65 yards to Brandon Inniss and 61 to Fredrick Cage in his TRU Prep debut.
“We definitely appreciate the opportunity to come out and be able to play this year,” said Vattiato who won’t need to worry about getting looks from colleges after he committed to Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 6. “We went from not knowing if we were going to play at U. School to finding out that we were thanks to some great people coming together. To allow this to happen, if you were at practice these last few weeks, the type of energy we had out there, you knew we were all pretty excited and thankful. Getting out there on the field tonight was so great.”
As far as what lies ahead for the Saints? A pretty formidable schedule. Because of the canceled season by University, TRU Prep. managed to pick up many of the Sharks’ scheduled games which will include two defending state champions, Champagnat (2A) on Oct. 9 and St. Thomas Aquinas (7A) a week later.
“We’re excited and looking forward to the challenge ahead,” said Smith who also said he is going to try and set up some kind of championship game of independent schools from Dade or Broward in late November. “It’s going to be quite a ride for all of us.”
▪ Florida Christian defeats Palmer Trinity (185-190): Nicholas Prieto (FCS) 35, Max Geslin (PT) 39, Sebastian Lana (PT) 43, Morgan Powell (PT) 46, Joseph Fernandez (FCS) 49.
▪ Columbus 146 d. Ransom Everglades 153 (at Miami Springs Country Club, Par 35): Hans Risvaer (C) 34, Jackson Langer (RE) 35, Andres Atrio (C) 36, Stephan Baker (RE) 37, Max Fonseca (C) 37.