By JOHN SCHWARB
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Late last summer, Joe Ionata surveyed the field during his first practice, and his heart sank.
Several players expected to play big roles had either quit or moved, leaving him with only a fraction of the manpower he thought he would need to field a contending team.
Only that group turned out to be more than enough. To kick off the season, Countryside dumped Northeast 27-10, ending the Vikings' 43-game regular-season winning streak. To end the season, the Cougars won their first playoff game in school history.
This summer, Ionata surveyed the field during his first practice, and his heart pounded. Many of the 2000 Cougars had returned.
"This is the largest senior class I've had since I've been here," the third-year coach said. "We walked out the first day and went right into stuff we've been doing for three years. We've been way ahead."
Countryside is in a new district, with Dixie Hollins, Dunedin, Lakewood, Largo and Tarpon Springs. Going undefeated in district play for the second consecutive year will be tough, but Countryside no longer sets modest goals.
It has just four playoff appearances in 20 years of football, but this class does not know life without postseason play. Another berth this year will make it four years in a row.
"We feel with all the seniors and guys coming back and expectations being raised," Ionata said, "we should be able to step up."
THROUGH THE AIR: Third-year starter Kyle Wolfinbarger is the rock of the team. His 235 pass attempts last year were more than any other county quarterback, and he completed just more than half of them for 1,590 yards.
A similar performance is likely this year, especially with senior receivers Cole Littlefield, Alvaro Muente and Corey Reardon.
ON THE GROUND: Countryside must rely on newcomers, but the spring game showed the fresh faces might be outstanding. Isaiah Gwyn, then a freshman, lit it up against St. Petersburg, picking up 101 yards on eight carries with a touchdown. Derek Ray added 34 yards to a ground game that totaled 253. "We have guys that will make you miss a little bit more than last year," said Ionata, adding the dangerous passing game can create plenty of running room.
DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE! Brandon Rottmayer, one of Tampa Bay's finest linemen, will suit up for Tulane this fall. Simply replacing him with someone else is not feasible.
"We're going to have to rely a little more on our X's and O's," Ionata said. "But we really have some surprises, some guys who have been here a couple years and have just matured physically and mentally."
One to watch could be Jason Johnson, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound sparkplug of a nose guard.
JUST FOR KICKS: All-county second-teamer Jon Peattie returns to handle kicking and punting duties. Last year during the regular season, Peattie hit 15 field goals and was 34-for-34 on extra points.
COACH: Joe Ionata, third season (11-12)
ASSISTANTS: Todd Belisle, Ed Hanner, Art Harriel, Matt Lance, Reginald Perkins
COLORS: Garnet and gold
STADIUM: Cougar Field, 300 State Road 580, Clearwater
CLASS: 4A, District 9
ROUND OF 32: 1996 (6A), 1998 (5A), 1999 (4A)
ROUND OF 16: 2000 (4A)