Ja’Randy Swint, who led the Kowboys in rushing last season with nearly 900 yards and nine touchdowns, returns for his senior year.

Dan PearsonBy J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

As more things change, the more they remain the same.

That old adage will prove most likely true again, as the Osceola Kowboys Football Team will most likely field the most talented team in the county, possibly the best in the region and maybe even the state when they open the 2021 season this Friday night with a pre-season game Kickoff Classic at Lake Nona.

It will most likely happen despite the sudden resignation last spring of veteran Head Coach Doug Nichols, the man who led the Kowboys to the Class 8A State Championship game last year – his third appearance in a state title game in his 11 years at the helm.

But there is incredible optimism for the Kowboys in 2021 and it starts with the leadership. Much of Nichols staff returns this year, including Eric Pinellas who was promoted to head coach after spending years as Nichols top assistant.

“I learned so much from Doug on the right way to administrate a football program, including the off-the-field issues like transportation, working with the booster club and running the off-season training program,” Pinellas said. “There’s a couple of old sayings about not trying to fix something if it is not broken and not trying to reinvent the wheel – and both of those certainly apply to the Osceola football program.”

One area that has not changed is the high expectations for the program. Pinellas welcomes back a squad with very little turnover off of last year’s 9-3 team that went on a playoff run before dropping a state championship game to Sanford Seminole – a team that finished 13-0 and was ranked 65th in the nation among all high school teams.

The Kowboys’ strength starts with the running game, which has been Osceola’s bread and butter for as long as most people can remember. The Kowboys return senior Ja’Randy Swint, who led the team in rushing last year with 884 yards and nine touchdowns on just 134 carries. Junior Izaiah Jean-Baptiste is an outstanding athlete who could very well be next on the list of great Osceola running backs. The Kowboys also have some younger talent waiting in the wings including Perry Garret.

At quarterback, senior Chad Mascoe returns as does experienced back-up Blake Birchler. A former Florida State commit, Mascoe played at IMG Academy before transferring to Osceola for his junior year. He completed 61 percent of his passes, throwing for 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns – impressive numbers for a run-oriented offense.

Mascoe’s top targets will most likely be wide receivers Ja’Keem Jackson, Chris Combs and Donald Cummings; as well as Jean-Baptiste out of the backfield. Cummings is a precise route runner that caught six balls for 115 yards in a limited role as a sophomore; while Jackson is a deep threat that averaged more than 19 yards and caught five touchdowns last season. Combs, an outstanding basketball player, looks poised for a big senior year after getting backup minutes last season.

Jean-Baptiste, has great hands for a running back and led all Kowboys with 36 receptions last year, including four scores. “Izaiah is such a weapon because we can line him up in the slot, out wide or in the backfield,” Pinellas said. “He has incredible speed and catches everything.” Add Adams Brown and George Duncan to mix and the Kowboys should have a solid receiving corps.

Despite losing leading tackler Nolin Eaddy at linebacker, the Kowboys’ defense should be big, strong, fast, and intimidating.

It starts up front where the Kowboys return junior tackles John Walker and Derrick LeBlanc. The two combined for 23 quarterback sacks, 25 additional tackles-for-loss, and 24 quarterback hurries last year and both are ranked in the ESPN “Top 50” list of junior defensive linemen. Walker and LeBlanc are considered top Division-1 prospects and have received multiple offers.

With Walker and LeBlanc creating havoc up front, a talented Osceola secondary will make it doubly tough for opposing quarterbacks. Bo Mascoe (Jr.), Kaylon Walters (Sr.), and Jeremiah Wilson (Sr.), all return. Those players combined for 117 tackles, 10 interceptions and 38 pass breakups last year. Gunner Holland, a hard-hitting sophomore who won a state wrestling championship as a freshman last year, will bolster the Kowboys defense –whether he ends up at safety or linebacker.

Although the Kowboys lose Eaddy and Alvin Lee at linebacker, the position will be in solid hands as Joel Campbell moves from running back to that position and will form a solid mid-level defense with Lamont Lee. Anthony Famularo, who saw extensive time on the defensive line last year, switches to linebacker and will also bolster that unit.

Special teams was where Osceola had to replace a starter in Spencer Richards, who departed via graduation after a stellar career. But junior Alejandro Gutierrez has stepped in and surprised coaches in fall camp with both his leg strength and accuracy.

About the only real area of personnel concern comes on the offensive line, where Osceola loses four starters – including all-county selections Cody Carter and Xavier Castillo. Still, this might be just a brief hiccup in the early going for the Kowboys.

Jimarion McCrimon, a 6-5, 250-lb. rising junior has started every game since his freshman year and will anchor that offensive line at tackle. Damian Williams played half a season last year but appears poised to capture a spot at guard; while three rising sophomores could capture starting spots including Antonio Cruz at center and Joseph Sweet, who is playing football for the first time in life but has surprised coaches with his ability.

After 10 days of camp, Pinellas believes the Kowboys will most likely start McCrimmon and four sophomores on the offensive line. “They have had their ups and downs so far but I always have to take the downs with a grain of salt. This offensive line is facing Derrick and John every day at practice so when they get a stalemate it seems like a win, because of who they have to go against,” Pinellas said. “Also, it is a brand new unit and it always takes some time for the offensive line to jell.”

The Kowboys have had a history of running roughshod over their district opponents to the point that they had to schedule tough opponents from around the state in order to face good competition. That changed this year as Osceola was placed in a new district (Class 8A, District 9) with perennial state power Dr. Phillips and upstart West Orange. With three teams in the top 10 in Class 8A, Maxpreps calls it the “toughest district in the state.”

Still the Kowboys remain confident that they can not only get back to the state championship win but can add to the title they won in 1998. “It’s sort of a two-edged sword for us,” Pinellas said. “We have expectations and goals so we don’t shy away from the talk of trying to win a state championship. But on the other hand, I think we have always tried to stay grounded. We constantly preach that no team is going to lie down and let us win and we have to take this one game at a time.”

Photo courtesy Jana Stultz/Osceola High School

Dan PearsonBy J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

J. Daniel Pearson, a long-time resident of Osceola County, has joined Positively Osceola as a freelance contributor. His JD’s Monday Morning Musings column will be a regular feature and he will be covering events for us throughout the year. Dan is a former Public Relations Specialist for Florida State University, Boardwalk and Baseball, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Orlando Predators, and other professional sports teams and has been a freelance reporter to many newspapers in the state.