Is it more difficult to reach the top or to stay there? That will surely be the storyline of the 2017 Falcons football season following an amazing run to the Sunshine State Athletic Conference independent state championship last year. It was the culmination of a journey that seemed unimaginable just five years earlier – from the struggles of a winless season under first-year head coach Tod Creneti in 2011, to a historic campaign that included a run of 11 consecutive victories and the school's first state title.
The Falcons now face the task of maintaining a standard of excellence that has seen them compile a 28-6 record and a pair of SSAC Florida Bowl appearances since 2014. They’ll take on that challenge without seven key starters from a year ago, but enough talent remains to keep Saint Stephen’s a league favorite. That talented roster is highlighted by one of the most explosive offensive backfields to be found anywhere in high school football.
Senior quarterback Fred Billy returns as the school’s all-time leading passer and rusher. He accounted for 2,235 total yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago. Beyond those gaudy numbers, however, Billy showed his true leadership and will to win when it counted most, rallying the Falcons for 21 fourth-quarter points during a dramatic victory over Vero Beach Saint Edward’s in the championship game.
Complementing Billy in the backfield is senior running back Chase Brown. A transfer last year from Canada, Brown saw his first action during the third week of the season and never looked back, rushing for 1,416 yards and 19 scores. He led all of Manatee County in rushing and displayed a penchant for the big play, averaging a whopping 11 yards per attempt. Brown already boasts several offers from major Division I college programs.
A third dangerous offensive weapon to watch is all-purpose senior Demetrius Davis. He accounted for nearly 1,000 yards in 2016 as a rusher, receiver and kick returner. Davis also starred as a defensive back, returning an interception 98 yards for a score to help turn the tide and secure a win against Seffner Christian in last year’s regular-season finale.
Despite the graduation of first-team all-conference offensive tackle Josh Stevens, the Falcons return solid experience up front in senior Parker Lansberg, juniors Darron Robinson and Tyler Burnham, and sophomore Dylan Davis, a rising star at center.
No reliable pass catcher returns other than Demetrius Davis, so there will be room for a new face or two to emerge to help replace the production lost with the graduations of top receivers Peyton Vining and Jordon Murrell.
On defense, back are three of the team’s four leading tacklers from a year ago in seniors Jet Gillum and Sydney Brown, and sophomore Cam Vining. At defensive end, Burnham is the top pass rusher with four sacks in 2016. Linebackers Ryan Thompson and Truman Carlsen, and cornerback Vaughn Hayes were all key players on the championship team and should take on even bigger roles this season.
The emergence of Saint Stephen’s football has clearly created a new sense of excitement on campus. Friday game nights have become prime-time events, thanks to the high-powered Falcons and the opening of the state-of-the-art Moore Athletic Complex in 2013.
Despite its brief football history, Saint Stephen’s has also had great success finding opportunities for its student-athletes at the collegiate level. Four of last season’s seniors will play in college and, in the previous four seasons, at least one Falcon moved on to a NCAA Division I FBS or FCS program: Linebacker/tight end Tim Nutter (Furman 2013), linebacker Bradley Beazant (Rice 2014), offensive lineman Wyatt Knopfke (Boston College 2015), and long snapper Jacob Westberry (Fresno State 2016).
Varsity Football (9th-12th grade)
Middle School Football (6th-8th grade)
Football is FHSAA sanctioned and is a fall season sport.