Mike Thornton enters the football season with a unique challenge for the Cypress Lake Panthers.
After finishing 1-9 last year, the Panthers' second-year coach is charged with inspiring his players to achieve at the highest level possible, while also keeping realistic expectations as the program continues to grow and evolve.
"We need to play well and then we'll be where we want to be, which is more respected and more competitive," Thornton said. "We don't want our internal goals to be unrealistic, but I see some glimmers of real talent on this team."
Cypress Lake sophomore quarterback Jayron Kearse (16) will lead the Panthers’ offense this season.
Playing in one of the toughest districts, the Panthers are faced with the same schedule challenges as last season.
They were held scoreless in four games in 2009, but in several games - like Fort Myers and Lely - Thornton said the team executed properly, but just could not get over the hump.
In the games that were within reach, Thornton said his team just made "five or six" too many mistakes they couldn't overcome. Even in the loses, the Panthers showed flashes of greatness against "the big dogs."
"Our district is extremely competitive ... but I look to be a lot more competitive in our entire schedule this year," Thornton said. "We match up pretty good in some, and I hope to be in some of those games and show some improvement. That's key."
The Panthers have few juniors, but plenty of seniors on the field this season, causing them to be "young at key positions."
Last year, the freshman class was plagued with issues, on and off the field, leaving the Panthers with no JV team to help replenish this year's ranks.
In turn, the Panthers are young, especially on offense, where three sophomores fill the quarterback, running back, and fullback positions.
Quarterback Jayron Kearse, fullback Zyon Simmons and runningback Von Calhoun undoubtedly are key to the Panthers' spread option heavy offense. Even moreso, they are responsible for helping push the Panthers beyond last year's 1-9 record.
For the seniors, this season represents their final shot at glory. Thornton, who's looking at three sophomore starters as potential studs in three years, knows time is short for the seniors, too.
That's where the challenge comes back into play. He wants to honor the seniors, but also wants to be honest about his team's potential.
Some guys have time to develop. Others, they only have this year.
"I've got some seniors who are looking at me and saying 'this is it coach.' I know we don't have time to take those steps, but we're in this position and we're going to make the best of it," Thornton said.
Despite a 4-6 record in 2008, followed by 1-9 last season, Thornton said the mood of the team and the school is still one of excitement and optimism. He said the offseason program was better attended this spring than his first.
As Thornton enters his second year, he thinks the kids understand the coaching staff has their best interests in mind.
That has helped to make the offseason a success, a feeling he thinks can transcend those practices and become a vital part of the growing and evolving program.
"We had a tremendous offseason. The excitement is 100 percent higher than it was when we were coming off the 4-6 season. I'm amazed," Thornton said. "For finishing 1-9, a lot of people are interested in our football team."
Cypress Lake High School Panthers
Sept. 3 - vs. Fort Myers
Sept. 10 - vs. Island Coast
Sept. 16 - at South Fort Myers
Oct. 1 - vs. Naples-x
Oct. 8 - at Barron Collier-x
Oct. 15 - vs. Golden Gate-x
Oct. 22 - at Lely-x
Oct. 29 - at East Lee County-x
Nov. 5 - vs. Lehigh-x
Nov. 12 - vs. Estero
Head coach: Michael Thornton ('09), second year (1-9)
Assistants: Pat McCarthy (offensive line), Scott Schaffer (defensive line), Robert Eady (DB), Jordan Green (RB), Jason Smith (freshmen).
Team Colors: purple & white
Stadium: Panther Field, 6750 Panther Lane, Fort Myers
Playoff History: 1983 - Bradenton Southeast 12, Cypress Lake 7; 1995 - Sarasota 28, Cypress Lake 14; 2000 - St. Thomas Aquinas 37, Cypress Lake 0. 2006 - Washington 55, Cypress Lake 0
Home: 0-4 Away: 0-5 District: 0-6
Fort Myers 41, Cypress 20
Island Coast 21, Cypress 10
South Fort Myers 44, Cypress 14
Naples 42, Cypress 6
Barron Collier 37, Cypress 0
Golden Gate 21, Cypress 6
Naples Lely 21, Cypress 10
East Lee 21, Cypress 0
Lehigh 47, Cypress 0
Cypress 43, Estero 37