Winter Park High Football head coach Tim Shifflet looks for leaders as he rebuilds for a fourth consecutive district championship.

Preparations for the 2019 football season are underway at Winter Park High School as players are being put through the paces.

Gym work, weight lifting and sprints were in order early in the morning. Some players stepped aside from their exercises to collect themselves before going right back into it.

“It’s all about the hard work,” Coach Tim Shifflet said. “A lot of times what you do in the offseason is going to pay off during the season, itself.”

Shifflet said his goals are always the same in the spring. The first is to improve from day one of practice and start to come together.

Second, to find out what the team can and can’t do well and build off of that. His final goal is to give everyone a chance to play.

The Wildcats have been hard at work this spring with daily workouts and practices. These range from conditioning and weight training to one-on-one drills.

Senior quarterback Casey Case explained what he’s doing to prepare for next season.

“I’m spending more time with my quarterback coaches, going to camps, getting exposure and getting guidance from college coaches,” Case said.

Other players, such as senior wide receiver Marcus Clarke said they’re also working harder to prepare. Clarke said he’s hitting the weight room and the field harder in an effort to improve.

“[I’m] just perfecting the little things to make myself a better athlete,” Clarke said.

Furthermore, Coach Shifflet and the players had a chance to see where they stood during their spring game. The Wildcats faced off against Dr. Phillips High School on May 16, losing a close one, 28-21.

However, Winter Park led 21-7 after three quarters. Dr. Phillips roared back to win it in the fourth quarter after both teams agreed to only play their freshmen for the final quarter.

Shifflet said he was pleased with his team’s performance and called Dr. Phillips a “really good football program.”

Rebuilding and finding leaders

Winter Park had a successful season in 2018. They posted a 4-0 district record (10-2 overall). The team won its third consecutive 8A District 3 championship and made it to the Region 1 semifinal.

Unfortunately, the Wildcats bowed out to eventual state champions Mandarin High School. Winter Park has made it to at least the regional finals in each of the past three seasons, but with new leadership, Shifflet hopes for a change shortly.

“Last year, we had a lot of talent on our football team, but our leadership was poor,” Shifflet said. “We had a lot of guys who just did not step up and lead.

“When you get into crucial situations in the playoffs, those are the things that separate the teams that win from the teams that lose.”

The Wildcats graduated 11 offensive and defensive linemen — and 22 seniors in total. As a result, Shifflet said the team still has a lot of rebuilding to do and a long way to go. But he’s pleased thus far with his returning players.

“Our strengths are in the perimeter, quarterback play, secondary, receiver and running back,” Shifflet said. “All through, this is where we got the majority of our kids back.”

Shifflet added that he enjoys spring and summer workouts to find out which players will rise to the occasion and step into those vaunted leadership roles.

A slew of seniors, including tackle Anthony Verzi, wide receiver Marcus Clarke, quarterback Casey Case, cornerback Ethan Pouncey and wide receiver Ja’marii Pringle are some of the upperclassmen Shifflet will be counting on this coming season.

Looking forward to the new season

Winter Park has a 10-game schedule next season with half of those being district games.

The Wildcats kickoff at home against Wekiva High School, the only team to beat them outside the playoffs in 2018. Winter Park then finish the regular season at home to district rivals Timber Creek High School.

In their second game on August 30, the Wildcats head to Georgia to play in the Freedom Bowl. There, they’ll face Ohio powerhouse Pickerington Central High School.

Senior leaders Case and Clarke are relishing the out of state opportunity to show what they can do.

“We’re playing some of the best teams in the country, and we’re invited — so I’m pretty excited about that,” Case said.

Shifflet says that regardless of the outcome, it will no less be a valuable experience for his players.

The two non-district games against Wekiva and Edgewater also have Shifflet teetering with excitement.

Wekiva posted an 11-2 record in ’18 and made it to the Class 8A Region 1 final. Edgewater went 12-2 overall and made it as far as the Class 7A state semifinal.

However, Shifflet remains adamant that the most significant contests are the district games — as they’re the ones that will decide playoff seeds.

The Wildcats goals remain the same as the past three years — win the district championship and therefore, host playoff games.

“I need some kids to step up who are going to do the right things,” Shifflet said. “[Kids] who are going to lead this program and this team hopefully to another district championship.”

*photo by Troy Herring