After making the playoffs for the first time in twelve seasons, the Wildcats are looking to repeat their successes and create a deeply rooted culture of winning and playing as a family.
Apalachee is entering its fifth year with head coach Tony Lotti leading the troops, and his players have bought into the vision he's set for the future.
Lotti and his coaching staff have used the growth in the number of players in the program as a sign of good things to come.
“I think coach Lotti taking control of the middle school program has been huge for us,” offensive coordinator David Seawright said.
“Our freshman class has over 40 players in it. When people saw the success that we had last season, they wanted to be a part of that. So, I think that made a big difference in our numbers.”
Lotti said the foundation of Apalachee's winning culture will start with “players playing for each other” as a family.
From there, anything is possible.
“We want the players to have a sense of belonging, and that everybody has a role,” Lotti said. “We’re never going to quit. While there are some things we can’t control, we talk all the time about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. So, we’re concentrating on what we can control.”
The big thing for me is building a culture of family where the kids respond to each other,” he added.
“One of the biggest detriments to a program, and also kind of what I saw beforehand, is a selfish team. So, that’s one of the things I think we’ve made great strides at: playing for each other and picking each other up.”
After twelve long years without a postseason appearance, the main difference between last season and the rest of the seasons is how the Wildcats were patient and trusted in Lotti’s process.
“He always talks about ‘putting a patch on your brother’s jacket,’” Seawright said.
“Those guys did a good job of that last year. We had a good class of seniors who really bought in. It was coach Lotti’s fourth year. But, we also talk about how 2022’s Wildcats are a new team. We have to make our mark this season.”
The Wildcats took some heavy losses due to many of their key impact players of last season graduating. Namely, running back Colby Sikes.
While lack of depth has always been an issue for the Wildcats, it’s recently become more of a strength, according to Lotti.
Lotti also said the increased numbers, which translate to increased depth, are a testament to the hard work he and his coaching staff put into building the program.
“We don’t talk about starters here, because, to me, I think it’s insignificant,” Lotti said when asked about the returning starters who will impact the team.
“I’ll tell a kid that, if all he cares about is starting, then I’ll let him play the first play of the game and the rest of the game he can stand next to me on the sidelines. Then, I’ll let him tell me how important starting was.”
“So, what we do is concentrate on playing as much football as you can during the offseason, thus putting yourself in a situation to play all of the football that you want to play on Friday nights. So, as far as that, we do have some key people coming back this year. We do have a few key players that we lost to graduation, like Colby, Patty and others. But, that’s one of the things I talked to our team as a whole about: building the program.”
Rather than focus on the X’s and O’s when referencing the Wildcats’ strengths, Lotti cited the program’s increased maturity level.
“For us, one of the things that was important was the steps we made last year; we’re getting back into the playoffs,” Lotti said. “So, for the kids, I think that experience is going to start to help us now. I think our effort and our mentality is a big strength for us. Now, the kids know they can win. They believe they can win, and they’re putting in the work to make sure that they can keep doing so.”
“With going to the playoffs last year for the first time in twelve years, our kids definitely have the region and state championships as one of their goals, especially making the playoffs though.”
However, it all comes back to teaching moments for coach Lotti; Lotti-isms, as Seawright calls them. Lotti wants his team to “live in the moment” and remember that football is more than a sport – it’s an opportunity to grow within oneself and grow with others.
“Just take it one day at a time and enjoy each day as God gives it to you,” Lotti said. You’re never guaranteed the next day. We plan for the future, and we have a good plan for the program and this team. But, I want them to understand about embracing the now. That’s one of the things we’ve talked about a lot, especially with the things that have gone on in the offseason.”
“I tell them that we only have a limited amount of time where we’re going to be together out here this way. But, if we do this thing right and build the relationship the right way, then we will never lose it to graduation. That’s what was the biggest plus for me when going through what I went through and what I’m currently going through: All of the guys that were on teams of mine were reaching out.”
“This is all because I told them, ‘if this is only about a 48-minute football game, then we don’t have anything.’ So, everything about football is for lifelong relationships.”
After a win against Discovery in the preseason scrimmage, the Wildcats will open the season on the road against Winder-Barrow in the Battle of Barrow Aug. 19.
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