Only two seasons removed from winning a Class 2A state championship, Champagnat discovered how “the other half lives” in 2015.
The Lions won just three games last season under first-year coach Dennis Marroquin who inherited a “bare cupboard” as Champagnat fielded a roster of only 15 players.
After knocking off Lakeland Victory Christian in the 2013 state title game, the bottom fell out quickly for the program. Going 6-3 despite a tough non-district schedule in 2014, Champagnat looked like it might make it back to Orlando to defend its title.
But a regular season finale in Bradenton taking on IMG Academy did not go well and changed everything.
IMG was up big in the third quarter when coach Mike Tunsil, evidently not happy with the way things were going or the game was being called, decided enough was enough.
His players left the field and Champagnat forfeited the game. What they didn’t realize were the ramifications of what they did. The state handed down a stiff penalty, banning them from postseason participation thus they would not be able to defend their state title.
A few months later Tunsil stepped down, and a truckload of players followed by transferring out.
“Yeah, last year was pretty tough,” Marroquin said. “I remember coming in here and having about five kids. I thought to myself ‘what have I gotten myself into.’ I have no players, we have no real facilties to speak of, a small little weight room and you go to whatever park you can find to practice.”
But Marroquin, who founded the Florida Fire 7-on-7 team and spent seven seasons as Marc Berman’s offensive coordinator at Hialeah, hung tough and weathered the storm.
“At the end of the day, my name in the community is pretty good, I know a lot of people and I’m connected with a lot of parks,” said Marroquin. “A lot of parents and people I grew up with sent me their kids. They came to the school and believe in what I’m trying to do here.”
Evidently, because the buzz coming out of the small school tucked away on Palm Avenue in Hialeah has started up again.
The Lions enter the 2016 season not only as the heavy favorite in a district that has three other teams (Belle Glade Glades Day, Delray Village Academy and International School of Broward), but if they could get past either Naples First Baptist Academy or last year’s state finalist Tampa Cambridge Christian, they could find themselves back in Orlando in December.
“We’re trying to climb back up that mountain and of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day as they say so it’s a process that we’re going through now but we’re definitely on the way back up,” said Marroquin. “The kids have really bought in and bonded together as a team. We had a good offseason, did a great job in the spring game against Hallandale and even though we lost 8-6, Hallandale was a team that made a deep playoff run last year and I saw a lot of good things out of our kids.”
The best news for Marroquin in the spring was that he had 38 kids in uniform.
Some of the top players Marroquin will lean on this season will be senior offensive/defensive lineman Mike Crespo, junior linebacker Donovan Georges and senior defensive back De’Vante Mitchell, who has already committed to Ohio University.
At 6-6, junior wide receiver Greg Rousseau will be an attractive target for quarterback Hector Vargas and safety Jordan Coley, over from Dade Christian which disbanded its program, will anchor the secondary along with Mitchell.
How deep are the Lions?
Defensive lineman Jesus Machado, who recorded 97 tackles last season, made national headlines last spring when he committed to defending national champion Alabama. And he’s only a freshman this season.
“Last year was tough for sure but we’ve got a lot of new players in this year and things are going to get better fast and I’m looking forward to it,” said Mitchell, one of those 15 players on last year’s team. “I can feel the excitement and I can feel we’ll be getting a ring. Coach Dennis (Marroquin) is a good, hard-working coach and he’s been there since day one sticking with us.
Georges as the University of Miami, Georgia, Syracuse, Indiana and Iowa on his list of college recruiters.
“Going into the season now, we’re getting more players and you can definitely feel the excitement building around here,” Georges said. “I’m looking to make some big plays and help my team.”
Said Marroquin: “The one thing about me, we’re reaching for the top all the time. Realistically we knew last year that it would be a process of trying to put things back together after they had fallen apart but this year is going to be different. We really think we have a shot to get out of Dade County and get back to Orlando.”