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WESLEY CHAPEL - Despite a successful junior varsity season, and despite returning his team intact, Ricky Thomas is trying hard to make sure his team understands that playing against freshmen and sophomores last season was a nice start, but playing against juniors and seniors will be something altogether different.
To get his point across last week, he clipped a picture of Ridgewood's bruising running back, Byronell Arline, from the newspaper and put it up on the locker room wall, asking his players a simple question:
"Are you ready for this guy?"
The Bulls think they are, but Thomas isn't as sure. He knows from experience this season will be more of a struggle than the last.
Wiregrass Ranch will start mostly freshmen and sophomores, and won't have a senior class to lean on. Despite an encouraging spring lifting weights, there is no substitute for experience.
"We might be the guys that get pushed around this year, " said Thomas, returning to the county's varsity coaching ranks for the first time since he resigned at Pasco in 2002. "But we had a good year in the weight room, and the kids are stronger. But the offensive line and defensive line need a lot of work. You're talking about situations where we'll have 14-year-old kids trying to block 18-year-olds. It's going to be tough."
If they are ready by season's start, Thomas smiles at the possibilities.
He "loves" rising junior quarterback Angel Rodriguez and has four running backs and a talented group of wide receivers as materials to build an offense.
This spring, Thomas' skill position players, who showed great promise during last year's JV campaign, have continued to impress.
"I think we're going to score some points, " Rodriguez said.
The best quarterback Thomas said he has ever coached was former Pasco standout Frank Craig. But he adds that Rodriguez, should he continue to progress at his current pace, could supplant the former Pirate.
"When it's all said and done, he could be the best quarterback I ever had in 28 years of coaching, " Thomas said.
But will he be able to progress behind a young line? As Rodriguez drops back to throw in practice, he has no time. He tucks the ball away and runs to his right, stops, rolls back left and under assault has little choice but to throws the ball away.
Thomas shakes his head and tries to remind himself there is still time to get bigger and stronger up front. In a few months, he will see if the Bulls are ready.