2017 Football Preview: Bartram Trail Bears embark on killer schedule with December on their minds

One may think it would be unfair to characterize this season for Bartram Trail as “December football or bust,” but the reality is the Bears have set playing in the final month of the calendar year as the least of their expectations.


The stars may be aligning for a special season: A senior quarterback who has been in the shotgun for years, an opportunistic and fundamentally sound defense and a Burkett on the offensive line.

All three scenarios were in play when the Bears made their third, and most recent, state semifinal trip in 2013. Although, entering the 2017 season, not everything in the blue half of St. Johns is a page from coach Darrell Sutherland’s playbook.

Instead of having one experienced quarterback who is heading to Division I football, the Bears have two in Joey Gatewood and Riley Smith. The defense has been retooled, but the four linebackers are comprised of two seniors and two juniors, all of whom saw action in 2016. Joining Brad Cecil and Tristen Sheptock on the offensive line will be three new starters, one of whom is 6-foot-6, 290 pound junior Johnny Burkett.

“We lost an (offensive line), but this O-line knows they have some big shoes to fill and they are going to fill them,” said junior linebacker Olivier Pageotte-Andre. “We got a kid named Nick McAbee, that kid works the hardest of anyone on the O-line. He is going to be a sophomore and he benches 285 (pounds) and squats 445. I think the O-line is going to shock everyone this year.”

If that’s the case, watch out. The Bears’ offense averaged 397 yards and scored 36 points per game last season. In three playoff games, they averaged 46 points. Of the 18 touchdowns the Bears recorded in the 2016 playoffs, 17 were scored by players who are returning this year.

“It’s very interesting. It’s really fun,” Burkett said. “I can’t really explain it. We always hang out together, it’s a real brotherhood. I feel we’re going to be really good this year.”

Johnny’s older brother, Jesse was the starting center at Stanford last fall and will almost assuredly have his television on ESPN2 when the Bears kick off the season on national television against Cartersville (Ga.) High School.

What’s next for the Bears is the first of what they hope are 15 games to prove they are one of Florida’s best programs.

“We’re definitely going to reach new heights,” Smith said. “We’ve been putting in the extra work to get past where we were last year.”

Last year, the Bears’ season ended in tears in The Backyard. Lee racked up 731 yards of offense to beat Bartram Trail 61-59 in the Region 1-7A final.

Defensively, the sentiment about how their season ended is simple: That should have never happened and it will probably never happen again.

“We took it hard and to the heart, but that helped motivate us for the season,” linebacker Corbein Hagans said. “Even in the weight room, Coach (Marc) Nadeau brings it up all the time when someone is slacking off.”

There isn’t much slacking off in workouts or in practices. Despite an extraordinarily difficult schedule that features state champions from Florida (Cocoa) and Georgia (Cartersville), a state semifinalist (Clay) and two other teams that won 11 games last fall (Mainland and St. Augustine), the Bears are not taking anything for granted.

“We made our schedule hard to prove why we are so highly ranked in the state and show everyone who we are,” said Robby Love, a junior defensive tackle, who produced 19 tackles and two tackles for loss in 10 games last year. “We are not big up front. We don’t have anyone who is 300 pounds on the line, but we probably have the most heart of anyone and we work the hardest.”

At 295 pounds, the loquacious Love weighs more than anyone else on the team. While, expectations may be bigger than some of the Bears themselves, the team is well aware that the only place “success” is found before “work” is in the dictionary.

“This team is very special,” Love said. “We say it every day. Every day at practice we say we’re going to practice like state champions. Even though none of us have been to the state championship in our life, we’re going to work harder than the next team.”

2017 schedule

Aug. 26 at Cartersville, Ga.

Sept. 1 at Daytona Beach Mainland

Sept. 8 vs. Clay

Sept. 15 vs. Oakleaf*

Sept. 22 at St. Augustine

Sept. 29 vs. Creekside*

Oct. 13 at Fleming Island*

Oct. 20 vs. Cocoa

Oct. 27 at Gainesville Buchholz*

Nov. 3 vs. Nease

2016 Results | Record: 8-5

Aug. 26 at Bishop Kenny W 34-14

Sept. 5 vs. Mainland L 48-22

Sept. 9 at Ridgeview W 54-7

Sept. 16 vs. Fleming Island W 10-0*

Sept. 23 vs. St. Augustine L 26-14

Sept. 30 at Creekside W 63-7*

Oct. 14 vs. Buchholz L 17-10*

Oct. 21 vs. Ponte Vedra L 48-45

Oct. 28 at Oakleaf W 49-35*

Nov. 4 at Nease W 36-14

Nov. 11 at Ocoee W 52-13**

Nov. 18 at Buchholz W 27-0**

Nov. 25 at Lee L 61-59**

Bartram Trail Bears

Strength: The Bears’ backfield has three future Division I players. The headliner is Auburn commitment Joey Gatewood. Riley Smith, who completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,132 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, is uncommitted. Also uncommitted is junior running back Devin Ellison, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry and a touchdown every 7.3 touches last year.

Area to Improve: The Bears allowed teams with dual-threat quarterbacks to score 48, 45, 35 and finally 61 points against them last season. If they want to play December football for the fourth time in school history, they will have to find a way to staunch the scoring.

Key Returnees: Gatewood, Smith and Ellison are not the only explosive playmakers coming back. Defensive end Parker Devine (45 tackles, 6.0 sacks) has a litany of Power 5 offers, linebacker John Amell is committed to the United States Naval Academy (101 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Offensive lineman and South Florida commitment Brad Cecil will be expected to anchor a unit that lost three starters from 2016.

Promising Newcomer: Cornerbacks Rhett Barnett and Kaelen Skipper will have the gargantuan task facing a trio of high-octane passing offenses to start the season. Barnett made 10 appearances in 2016 and Skipper made four, but the two will be in much larger roles this fall.

District Outlook: The Bears have an extraordinarily difficult non-district schedule, which will have them well-prepared for District 3-7A play. Nonetheless, Bartram Trail is the prohibitive favorite because of its experienced core. Gainesville Buchholz, the team that has won consecutive district championships, has graduated 34 seniors and will be integrating a new quarterback.