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A perpetual winning record, state championships, national rankings, an extensive fan base - all make Lakeland High football games must-see affairs.
By JOHN C. COTEY
Published September 12, 2006
Andy Mastalski, 74, has been a fixture at Lakeland High games for the past 24 years and sports a homemade Dreadnaught hat for each one.
LAKELAND - Andy Mastalski looks like he got lost on his way to the nearest college campus.
As he stands in line for a quick bite before the game, a fearsome and carefully crafted battleship - about the size of two shoeboxes - sits atop his head, lights blinking, full steam ahead.
He takes it off to show an interested onlooker. It is made of plastic canvas and balsa wood, with an outer stitching of orange and black yarn. He makes a new one every year; the old ones he donates to the school.
A cowbell hangs around his neck, but that's nothing compared to the bigger one he has gleefully hidden in his pompoms back at his seat. His T-shirt proclaims his favorite team's greatness.
Mastalski is 74 years old. Never even attended Lakeland High School. But for the past 24 years, since his daughter enrolled at the school in 1981, he has missed just a handful of games and become one of the team's biggest fans.
Mastalski personifies most of the 5,500 or so who filled Thomas W. Bryant Stadium Friday night to witness another drubbing by the Dreadnaughts. The crowd is filled with students, alumni, parents, but mostly locals, all with a connection to the school and the program that only seems to grow stronger with time.
But that's only part of the explanation for the mystique.
On Friday nights, Lakeland football is the place to be because the Dreadnaughts have made it so.
* * *
Every team has its day in the sun. But it always seems to shine on Lakeland, where the cyclical peaks and valleys that frustrate most high school coaches have been dodged by one of the state's most finely run programs.
The Dreadnaughts have won 33 consecutive games (they won 60 straight in the late 1990s). They are the two-time defending Class 5A state champions and favorites for a third straight title. They were the preseason No. 1 team in the country, according to Student Sports, are No. 1 in the state regardless of classification, according to the Beef O'Brady's Top 25, and are USA Today's No. 3 team a year after finishing No. 1.
Saturday, they are scheduled to play nationally-ranked St. Xavier at the University of Cincinnati.
In 31 seasons as a head coach, Bill Castle has never had a losing record. He has won more games at one school than any coach in state history. He has guided the Dreadnaughts to five state championships.
"We have been very fortunate," Castle said after a 34-7 victory over Winter Haven on Friday. "It's one thing to have a season. It's another to have a program."
And a program is what it is, with the excellence on the field in perfect rhythm with the enthusiasm and college atmosphere off it.
"Lakeland is the program we've tried to emulate," said Chris Taylor, offensive coordinator at Armwood, arguably the closest thing to Lakeland in the Tampa Bay area. "To me, that's the ultimate compliment."
* * *
Outside, the school's wrestling team - shirtless bodies painted orange and black - herds cars into a parking lot. Fans flip through a 70-page program as they stand in line for a ticket. Police officers direct traffic, ensuring the hundreds of fans streaming to the ticket gate do so safely.
Inside, the concession line never withers. Behind the south end zone, tables are set up hawking Dreadnaught gear - hats, shirts, ThunderStix, license plates. Smoke billows from a nearby grill, fans mill around tall oak trees.
The stands are nearly full. Soon cheerleaders will be throwing T-shirts and miniature footballs to the crowd.
It is almost an hour before kickoff.
"This is an event, not just a football game," said Randy Gilbert, a booster club member who grew up in Lakeland and played linebacker in 1982. "It's really always been like this. It's always been a big deal."
The team is led to the field by a giant Lakeland football helmet, fitted over a golf cart, spewing CO2 from fire extinguishers. It then shares the sideline with a trailer-sized battleship and its signature 1,200-pound bell, which is rung throughout the game.
Gilbert said former Gov. (then a senator) Lawton Chiles arranged for the bell, which used to be housed at the Goat Island Light Station in Cape Porpoise Harbor, Maine. In exchange, the light station flies the Lakeland flag.
"It's all about the pageantry," Gilbert said. "Any school could do this. It just takes a lot of work, and a lot of asking people to help. If they say no, you keep asking."
When the team travels, so does the helmet and battleship. Both will make the trip to Cincinnati.
"Not everyone lets us use it," Gilbert said. "Some coaches have said just having those things is intimidation and say it's worth 14 points a game."
Gilbert sprints for his miniature Marine starter cannon, loads a 10-gauge shotgun blank, and pulls.
Lakeland has scored again.
* * *
Located between the larger and more bustling Tampa and Orlando, Lakeland retains that hometown feel. Its population is roughly 88,000, and the closest the city comes to the big time is Detroit Tigers minor-league baseball.
But nothing stirs the populace like Dreadnaught football.
"A lot of that stuff has grown over the years, but they have always had a tremendous mystique," said Taylor, who grew up in Lakeland and coached against the Dreadnaughts at Lake Gibson. "When I was a little kid growing up in Lakeland, it was a big deal and people went to the Lakeland games. That's what you did on Friday night."
Taylor said he recently attended a party in Lakeland and recalled a conversation with a friend who had four season tickets and took his boys to games.
"He never even went to Lakeland."
Castle, who has been able to maintain the Dreadnaught dominance in football-rich Polk County despite the opening of new schools, said there is no great secret to the success. He is being either demure or truly believes it is a combination of a committed community, devoted boosters, loyal alumni and hungry and devoted players.
Not to mention (which he doesn't) outstanding coaching and preparation.
"You can't take shortcuts," Castle said. "It's just about being diligent and working hard. On the field, and off."
Mastalski says it's all about family. That's why as many as 5,000 fans have followed the Dreadnaughts to road games. Why more than 1,000 season tickets are sold every year. Why the fans sit shoulder to shoulder, whether you or your neighbor has a boy on the team or your daughter graduated from Lakeland 20 years ago.
When the Dreadnaughts travel, Mastalski said it "makes me sick" to see empty seats in stadiums where the Friday night lights are slowly dimming.
You won't see that at the city-owned Bryant Stadium, smack dab in the heart of the city.
"In Lakeland," said running back Chris Rainey, "this is the place to be."