By:  J. Daniel Pearson

In face of some obstacles that have presented some almost insurmountable problems,  Marlin Roberts tried to remain positive as he heads into his 24th season overall and 15th  year as head coach of the Gateway Panthers.

Still, the pain and frustration is noticeable in his voice as he talks about the school that he has loves and has shown rock-solid dedication to for more than two decades.  “We have had more than our fair share of problems the last couple of seasons and this year may be the most difficult of them all,” Roberts says with a audible sigh.  “You really don’t want to say we are in survival mode, but that’s sort of where we are.”

The issues are enormous.  

For more than a year, the Gateway campus has been under a total reconstruction.  The front of the school has numerous barricades that resemble security checkpoints on a foreign soil army base.  His football parking lot has mountains of dirt, pipes, and heavy duty equipment.

During spring football and much of fall training camp, Roberts has often had to find random fields to hold practices – which has included moving several tons of iron to set up makeshift weight rooms.  

He was informed that construction delays would require him to play the first two-thirds of his season on the road.  Including the Kickoff Classic, the Panthers are scheduled to play the first eight of their 11 game slate away from home – with no guarantee that they will even have one home game.  With no booster club and little community sport, this has created a financial nightmare for Roberts and the athletic department as football tickets and parking essentially fund their entire program.

Adding to the issues is that when Tohopekaliga opened a few years ago, it siphoned off roughly half of Gateway’s student body (including half the athletes), dropping the school down 7A to 5A (before the new classification started in 2022).  The numbers have yet to recover.

No area school has suffered more devastating injuries to key players in the last couple of years (Gateway went through four quarterbacks last season); while the open transfer rule (a policy Roberts detests) and discipline issues have also seen key players depart.  

Still, Roberts says that Gateway will fight their way through the season.  

“We have about 40 kids out for varsity and they are navigating the construction and other issues,” Roberts said.  “We have mostly freshmen and sophomores so it will be a young team this year that will hopefully stay together and fight their way through.”

LB Tristan Martinez and OL Gustavo Gallardo are among the few veteran players Roberts will rely on to provide leadership to his team.

Although the team is young, his running back group of Chris Charity, Joshua Fuller and Dashawn Reese is solid.  Track standout Darius Young could be a factor at wide receiver.  Sophomores Jandel Diaz and Markis Hill are competing for the quarterback job, with Diaz holding a lead going into the final week of training camp.

Sophomore safety Moise Joseph is the most experienced defensive back, with Young expected to be a two-way player and help at corner.  Tristan Martinez is the top linebacker.

With a young team facing at least eight and possible 10 regular season road games, Roberts knows a winning season would be a huge “ask” and his expectations are more tempered.  “We need to stay healthy, stay together and stay focused,” he said.  “This is going to be a difficult season to get through.”

For time being, Roberts says he looks forward to the end of campus reconstruction and looks forward to the next round of rezoning and possible reclassification.  “We have almost empty class rooms while every other high school in around us is busting at the seams,” the veteran coach said.  “If they even give us part of BVL (Buena Ventura Lakes subdivision) back when they rezone next, it would be a huge plus for our school and athletic department.  Our district includes Polk and Osceola county, two of the biggest land area counties in the state, so we are one of the biggest (6 schools) and most wide-spread districts in the state.”    

2023 Schedule

Kickoff Classic

  • Aug. 18 at Wesley Chapel 7 p.m.

Regular Season

  • Aug. 25 at Lake Buena Vista 7 p.m.
  • Sept. 9 at Orange Park Ridgeview 7:30  p.m.
  • Sept. 15 at Auburndale 7:30  p.m.
  • Sept. 22 at Ocala West Port 7 p.m.
  • Sept. 29 at Liberty 7 p.m.
  • Oct. 6 at St. Cloud 7:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 13 at Lake Wales 7 p.m.
  • Oct. 20 Lake Region 7:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 26 Davenport 7:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 3 Gadsen County 7 p.m.