For the fourth time in its five years of existence, Tohopekaliga has started its football season with a new head coach at the helm. The first two coaches – Anthony Davis and Marc Deas – built a successful program, but the team backslid dramatically last year. Enter Athony Paradiso, who takes over after a successful run at Lake Nona High School where he guided the Lions to eight trips to the post-season. Paradiso likely enjoyed last week’s opener as the Tigers easily beat Liberty 49-0.
Paradiso, who went 72-43-0 at Lake Nona, has already started to change the culture at Tohopekaliga. “I think there are three keys to building a successful program. Create an identity, improve facilities and make the program attractive for the players,” Paradiso said. “We have made it attractive by getting new uniforms and creating new combinations. We have started branding our facilities with paint and logos. The biggest key is building an identity. We are going to run a fast-paced fun offense the athletes going to want to play in. But most importantly, we are going to do everything we can to put our players in a position to be successful and get to the next level if that is their goal and that includes in the classroom or on the field. That is the real identity we want to establish. We won’t worry about wins, because if we do everything right the wins will take care of themselves.”
The early results have been encouraging. Because of transfers and athletes leaving the team, Tohopekaliga finished with less than 40 players on the roster at the end of last season. Under Paradiso, the team had almost 90 players at the beginning of camp. “Toho was not able to field even a junior varsity team the last couple of years,” Paradiso said. “I hoping we will have a varsity, JV and freshmen team this year.”
Although just entering ninth grade, Sabby Meassick will be showcased on the varsity as he has already been named the team’s starting quarterback. Meassick, who played some varsity last year as an eighth grader at the private Foundation Academy, has already grabbed the attention of major colleges – with Florida offering him a scholarship last year.
“It normally would take a lot of thought before naming a the freshman starting quarterback,” Paradiso said. “But he’s the best and most qualified quarterback we have in camp. Sabby is an incredibly intelligent individual and is a sponge for absorbing football knowledge. He’s the most dynamic 14-year-old player I have ever seen.”
It’s not like Paradiso has not had success with freshman quarterbacks before. In the fall of his first season at Lake Nona, he made the unusual decision to start freshman Kyle Isreal at quarterback. Isreal threw 30 touchdown passes in his first season and finished with 15,000 passing yards and 162 touchdown passes in leading the Lions to three consecutive playoff appearances. “That worked out pretty good for us and I think Sabby has the ability to match or exceed what Kyle did.”
Last season, the Tigers had most of their best players going both ways – which is something Paradiso hopes they can avoid this year. “With the exception of one or two guys, we absolutely hope to platoon this year. Toho had some good players last year that just got worn down as the game went on.”
Meassick should have some weapons to throw to. “We have about eight receivers that are all the same and we play fast so we will rotate a lot of them in and out of the game,” Paradiso said. He added that Julian Nasco, a 5-11 junior transfer from St. Cloud, Nick Rawls a senior transfer from Orlando Christian Prep and Dillan Harrell, another senior transfer, will all play prominent roles on the offense this year.
The offensive line will be anchored by senior co-captain Jonathan Ogbuaga and Jairo Beltran. Anthony Barnes will anchor the Lions linebacking corps and the Tigers should feature some solid players in the defensive backfield.
But more than the new players and few veterans, Paradiso believes it is the increase in numbers that will make the biggest difference for the Tigers this year. “We are going to have an offense and a defensive unit with backups on both sides of the ball,” he said. “With the exception of maybe two players, we are not going to have to have guys play both ways and in the long run, that will make a huge difference over the course of the season.”
He added that he expected some first-year hiccups. “We’re going to make some mistakes this year, which always happens with a new system. But we have a lot of players and we are going to put them in position to make plays,” Paradiso said.