University School of Nova Southeastern University was leading Miami Westminster Christian 16-8 at halftime during its second-to-last home game of the season. Had the Suns held on to their lead, they would have earned their third win of the season, but senior linebacker Raul Mendy knew the game was going to flip in Westminster’s favor.
Mendy, one of University School’s two seniors, saw some teammates laughing and joking on the sideline and could tell they weren’t focused. Westminster Christian rolled in the second half to a convincing 46-23 win.
Only two weeks earlier, the team had endured a 53-0 loss to Miami Gulliver Prep. And that followed a 50-3 loss to Belle Glade Glades Central.
It has been a humbling experience for the Suns (3-8), who just two seasons ago went undefeated en route to winning their first state championship, and finished ranked 24th in the nation and third in Florida. With the 2014 state playoffs entering their second week, University School is conspicuously missing.
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This past season, for the first time in eight years, Roger Harriott wasn’t the coach at University School. Harriott announced over winter break that he was leaving to become an assistant coach at Florida Atlantic University, and soon, University School’s star football players were leaving, too.
Standout running back Jordan Scarlett (University of Miami commit), cornerback Rashard Causey (FAU commit), defensive tackle Brandon Boyce (Duke commit) and receiver Sam Bruce (UM recruiting class of 2016 commit) all transferred to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. Plantation American Heritage received seven prominent former University School players in what Mendy called “the Purge.” Gone with them were the 12-1, 13-0 and 10-3 seasons that had become the standard at University School.
When everyone left, their teammates found out the news on Twitter. Rumors that University School was going to shut down its football program spawned online shortly afterward.
“I got the news that Roger Harriott had left,” Mendy said. “And then, one after the other — ‘Jordan Scarlett: I will now be attending St. Thomas,’ or, ‘I will now be attending American Heritage’ — and I was like, ‘Wow.’
“That was a big day for South Florida football.”
Still, Mendy and fellow senior Mike Gonzalez stayed at University School, along with a handful of others, most of whom were rising sophomores and freshmen.
The decision to rejoin the team under its new coach, Brandon Harris, wasn’t easy or immediate.
Mendy, a lacrosse player committed to play at Tufts University in Boston, didn’t decide to return until February, a month after Harriott and the former players left.
Gonzalez didn’t join the team until after the second game of the season.
“I just kept coming back to it, kept working out with them, kept seeing how the practices were going, seeing how the two-a-days were going,” Gonzalez said. “It just seemed like I couldn’t stay away from it, even when I tried. I felt like I owed something back to the program.”
Slot receiver and running back Jonathan Moore saw significant playing time as a freshman under Harriott. When Harriott left, Moore transferred to Fort Lauderdale Dillard for the spring 2014 semester and was originally one of 12 players to leave University School.
He was the only one to come back to University School in the fall.
Moore, who aspires to play college football, chose University School and its academics over a sure-fire competitive football program.
“Most of the older kids had already left before the quarter ended,” Moore said. “I thought we weren’t going to have a football team, then we heard Coach Harris was going to try and rebuild. I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can give this coach a shot to see what he can do.’ So I decided to come back. This is the school where I really want to be.”
Moore echoed what Mendy and Gonzalez said drew them back to the program: an instilled sense of loyalty, family and duty.
“That was one of the reasons — they have a tradition here,” Moore said. “I wanted to be one of the players that continued the tradition.”
After arriving in Florida in February from Arizona, where he was the head coach at Phoenix Christian Prep, Harris began building his squad with the 19 kids who showed up to spring tryouts.
Of the scattering of young players who had played football at University School before, only Moore and defensive lineman Nik Bonitto had seen significant action under Harriott.
Mendy and Gonzalez weren’t in the picture yet.
“There was a huge leadership vacuum,” Harris said. “What you had here is you had kids who had success by association.
“There was a group of kids that were here and were staying, but they were acting as if, ‘Well, we are U School football’ … so there was kind of this smugness and this ‘you’ve got to prove it to us’ mentality, and that took a while to eradicate. And when you don’t have that senior leadership to say, ‘Stop it,’ that kind of permeated the program for a while.”
For Mendy and Gonzalez, leadership meant overcoming lingering feelings of inadequacy.
The seniors had come up in Harriott’s system, learning from players including Auburn quarterback Sean White and South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore.
“Look, I’m not going to college for football,” Mendy said. “It sounds better coming from a D-1, South Carolina commit, you know, Skai Moore. He came up to me, I remember, sophomore year, and gave me some tips and it was like, ‘Oh, he got all these offers, I know he’s going to play football in college. I respect him a lot.’ But coming from … me, it’s kind of harder.”
Mendy and Gonzalez did eventually gain their teammates’ respect. They fell back on what they had learned and worked to ingrain those traits in their young teammates. No one was surprised with the record at season’s end, but losing taught the team to value hard work, patience and humility.
Ask Moore which of the three wins means the most to him, and it’s not the first victory of the season (24-14 against Jupiter Christian) nor the team’s homecoming win (35-22 over Keys Gate). It’s senior night, when the Suns defeated Miami Palmetto 15-14 in their season finale.
“The first win was big, because we played with intensity and passion for the game, so it was a wake-up call telling the team we could actually win,” Moore said. “But the win that really stood out to me was our last game of the season, because it was senior night. For those two seniors that played for us, it was important to send them away with a win. They might not play football again, and I wanted their last time playing at University School to be the best.”
Shift in philosophy
The season concluded a tumultuous year for University School, one that began with the Suns seemingly de-emphasizing athletics in favor of community and academics.
The reason behind the turnaround remains muddled. Upper school director William Kopas said Harriott simply took a good job opportunity, whereas Harris said University School had a “philosophical change.”
“I don’t know that my philosophy and the things that I do and what I believe in are much different from what Coach Harriott believed in and what he did,” Harris said. “The difference is we just have younger players. The school had a philosophical change, wanted to really try to develop talent from within, and if a student was going to transfer here, we were not going to make it a priority to have dollars set aside for brand new students in the school.”
University School’s financial assistance policy is need-based, Kopas said, and primarily available for families of students in grades 6-11. He said the policy has not changed.
Said Kopas: “I would say it’s an interpretation of how the policy was. … That’s basically a commitment to our families that are in the school, and is built around the factor of need.”
Financial aid aside, some parents have children on the team like Moore who dream of playing college football, and they aren’t sure the school is putting in the adequate amount of support to foster a successful program.
Kim Bennett, mother of sophomore defensive tackle Kivon, said she still has a bad taste in her mouth from how the school handled Harriott’s departure. She believes the school made a misstep in not addressing rumors of changes to the football program that started during the 2013 playoffs.
Bennett wants to see the school commit to improving the team. Otherwise, she said her family might not stay.
Harris, who also serves as the school’s director of inclusion and special college placement, pointed out the benefit of restarting the program with younger kids and not “reloading at the top of the funnel.” He has freshmen and sophomores getting the kind of experience most South Florida football players don’t see until senior year.
He expects the team to be back as a state contender in the not-too-distant future, and Moore thinks the team’s high-intensity offense and college-level playbook puts it in a good position for next season.
Harris believes he can strike a balance between community, academics and winning. The school, which is switching mascots from the Suns to the Sharks to better match its campus host Nova Southeastern University, plans to stay in Class 4A.
“Even though we had a losing season, I’m certainly not a loser, and those kids aren’t losers,” Harris said. “They went through a necessary process, and that process was for them to be stripped away from their preconceived ideas and beliefs. Hopefully their families can recognize that this is a program moving in the right direction.
“When you have that recognition that there’s progress being made and we have a core group of people that stay together, we can do something special.”