While most high school kids will be sleeping in Thanksgiving morning and enjoying time with family, members of the Western High School football team will be setting alarms early and trudging their way out to the school for an early morning practice.
And they won’t mind one darn bit.
For the first time in the 36 year history of the program, there will be “practice on Thanksgiving” for the Western Wildcats. That’s all due thanks to not one but a pair of upset wins on the road over the course of the first two weeks of the high school state playoffs.
One week after Western, the No. 6 seed in Region 3-8A, overcame a 10-0 halftime deficit and stunned No. 3 Deerfield Beach 20-17, the team traveled to Wellington last Friday night to take on No. 2 Palm Beach Central.
Trailing 12-0 entering the fourth quarter, Western was undaunted as quarterback Harrison Story and running back Keshaun Clarke led the way to a stirring 14-12 comeback win, driving 90 yards in the final three minutes with Clarke scoring the game-winning touchdown from four yards out with 53 seconds left.
So here they are, a Western High School football team, a school tucked away in a quiet little northwest corner of Davie and a program that until two weeks ago had a grand total of zero playoff wins in seven previous visits to the postseason,, preparing for another challenge on Friday.
Western will hit the road again, traveling to Delray Beach to challenge Atlantic High School in a Region 3-8A final. And if everybody thinks this Cinderella ride is going to end, you wouldn’t convince any Wildcat players of that or their head coach Adam Ratkevich.
“It’s amazing what these kids have accomplished,” said Ratkevich as the sun set following practice Tuesday afternoon. “Best record in school history, first team to win a playoff game let alone two, first team to beat Deerfield and first team to beat Dillard, that’s a lot of firsts. And it’s all about hard work. Our motto is Davie Strong – we’re your classic blue collar team.”
“It’s been crazy,” said Story who has offers in from Valparaiso and SE Missouri State and waiting to see what else might come in. “One teacher who has been at the school for a really long time came up to me yesterday and said they’ve never been this excited about the football team. That’s really cool when you hear stuff like that.”
What perhaps makes Ratkevich most proud is that after inheriting a program three years ago that was coming off a winless 0-10 season in 2013, he has built the program up grass-roots style. In a day and age where players change uniforms like most change clothes everyday, Ratkevich has done it with very few transfers.
“The reality is that we built most of this with homegrown Davie kids,” said Ratkevich. “Of course when you start winning and doing some positive things, some guys are going to be attracted to that but at the end of the day, we’re not an all-star team like some other teams out there. This team is largely comprised of the kids who came in here with me four years ago like Harrison (Story) who I started working out with as an eighth grader.”
The success of this team may have started a year ago. That’s when the Wildcats traveled to traditional district power Miramar for a late-season showdown in which the winner would go to the playoffs and the loser would be out.
Trailing 6-0 with four minutes left and having done very little on offense all night, Story found the magic and drove his team downfield, scoring with 30 seconds left to stun the Patriots 7-6, making the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Ratkevich said that was all part of a process of putting building blocks in place.
“No doubt about it,” said Ratkevich. “Every building starts with that first brick and while this has all been a four year building process since the first day I arrived, ultimately you need that crystalizing moment where the kids can see what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been working for is starting to pay off and that moment for us was last year in Miramar.”
“Not that we weren’t already close but the last few weeks the team has gotten even closer,” said Clarke who finished third in Broward County rushing with 1,434 yards and has offers from Akron, Central Michigan and Bethune-Cookman. “Now the chemistry is really there. And if we fall behind? We’ve got them right where we want them. Coach Rack always says drag’em into deep water and then drown them and that’s what we’ve done.”
Linebacker Dylan Litsenberger is another one of those homegrown Davie products who came in as a freshman with Ratkevich and led Broward County in tackles this season with 118.
“This is very exciting especially being a part of something that you know you’re doing for the first time,” said Litsenberger. “Coach Rack has been really something. He’s instilled hard work in all of us. He’s a blue collar hard working coach and that filters right down to the players.”
But the best anecdote Ratkevich gave out on Tuesday was his trip to Dunkin Donuts last Saturday morning.
“True story, no lying,” said Ratkevich. “I walk into a Dunkin Donuts and I had I believe at least 15 people come up to me and congratulate me. The kicker is that I had no clue who they were. Just some more Davie locals caught up in the excitement. That’s when it hits you what we’re doing.”
And Ratkevich better be careful. One more win over Atlantic on Friday night and his team will find itself in the Class 8A state semifinal against Columbus or Miami High. If that happens, the donuts just might be on the house.
▪ Braddock Boys’ Basketball Preseason Tipoff — Game 1: Homestead 65, Ferguson 42, Halftime 35-24. Game 2: Braddock 73 Reagan 58, Halftime 32-26.
Mater High School Preseason Tournament — Doral Academy 69, Mater Lakes 48: DA: Ayesa 27, Alewie 12, R. Perez 12, Mercado 10, K. Perez 8; ML: J. Garcia 17, Linarez 12, Largie 8, Martinez 5, Cuevas 3, Starks 3; Halftime score: Doral 39, ML 20; 3pts: Ayesa 5, J. Garcia 5, Linares 2, Mercado 2, R Perez 2, K. Perez.
Gulliver tournament — Palm Glades 65, Terra 47; Florida Christian 77, West Boca 50; Gulliver Prep 74, Miami Beach 72.
▪ Carrollton 56, Archbishop Carroll 15: Sabrina Mas 16, 3 steals, Tanya Eathekotti 16, 5 steals, Carolina Shriver 9, 8 rebounds; Halftime score: 50-10; Carrollton record: 3-0.