When Josue Castro would line up at quarterback last season for Westland High the plan was about as simple as it gets.
“We’d line up and I’d try my best,” the 5-9, 168-pound junior said Tuesday after he and 22 teammates completed practice under the watchful eye of new coach Matthew Van Dusen.
“Coach [Les Jackson] would call some play, but most of the players didn’t know it so they would run whatever. So I’d see if anybody was open and then if not I’d run for my life.”
The Wildcats, losers of a Miami-Dade County-record 34 consecutive games including the last 30 by a combined score of 1,412 to 37, are no longer running around blindly. This year, there’s an actual playbook, a game plan and real practices. The days of showing up to practice with half the team missing “and practicing against air,” Castro said, are over.
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Van Dusen, a former football equipment manager for the Florida Gators football program under Urban Meyer in 2007, is not only trying to teach players with zero football background how to really play the game at Westland, he’s also trying to put an end to the losing, too.
Saturday night’s opener might be the best shot the Wildcats have all season. That’s when they take on Hialeah Gardens at Ted Hendricks Stadium. The Gladiators, who ended the third-longest losing streak in Dade history at 30 games in 2014 when they beat Westland, were a 1-8 program a year ago.
One win, Van Dusen says, could go a long way in ending the ridicule he and his team face. He says he has heard students refer to Saturday’s game as “Wasteland versus Hialeah Garbage” because both teams are struggling.
“There's some big boys walking around campus who aren’t playing football,” said Van Dusen, 28, who spent his first four years out of college coaching football and baseball at Palm Beach Lakes and Riviera Beach Suncoast High in Palm Beach County, where he played high school ball.
“Most of it is just getting their grades right and getting them interested in football. With this generation, they want to join a winner. They don’t want to join that 0-34 team and just get their butt whupped. So, as coaches, we said if we compete or we beat Hialeah Gardens, which is the plan, we’re going to have a ton of kids next Monday that are going to be ready to play.”
The state’s longest losing streak according to the Orlando Sentinel’s Buddy Collings is 46 games. Tampa Leto ended it with an 18-15 win over Middleton on Oct. 14, 2014.
Van Dusen believes Westland, which is located between a series of strip malls and an L.A. Fitness gym off West 18th Avenue in Hialeah, can do more than end a losing streak. He thinks the football team can be competitive.
It once was under current Miami Palmetto High coach Mike Manasco, who led the Panthers to the playoffs last season. He was Westland’s first coach and in five seasons went a combined 15-34. But his teams got better with each season and weren’t getting blown out like this.
“It was tough, man,” Manasco said of his time at Westland. “I think as long as I’m coach I’ll look back on those five years and appreciate the struggle. The last two years we didn’t get blown out once. We finished third in the district a couple times when we were in the same district as Belen and Norland. Better players make you appear to be a better coach. But I’m proud of what we were able to do there starting from scratch.”
That’s basically where Van Dusen is. There’s no football feeder program for Westland. None of the 27 players on the roster (four are suspended for the opener) played organized football before setting foot at Westland. Hehas had to teach everything basically from scratch with the 13 returning players from last season having to teach some new teammates how to put on pads.
“It took me a week to figure it out,” said 5-9, 250-pound senior right tackle Kevin Garrido, who had never played football until teammate Daivert Hernandez recruited him to play in June and convinced him Van Dusen was a legitimate coach who was going to change the program. “I didn’t know any names of the positions either. I was completely lost.”
Now, Garrido says, he isn’t lost anymore. He studies game film with his teammates through an app on his phone, and Van Dusen logs how many hours each of his players is spending on it. Hehas also implemented new rules (practice and workouts are mandatory) and has taken his players to see two Dolphins preseason home games to help them understand the sport further.
“After the last Dolphins game I got one text from a kid who was like ‘Coach they run the same field-goal formation as us,’ Van Dusen said. “I said, ‘Guys there’s really only one field-goal formation. You really can’t change it up.’ It’s just fun to see they’re interested, watching games. They’re as committed as us coaches are.”
Now, the next step, is getting more students to buy in. This summer, when the Wildcats won a game at the Dolphins’ 7-on-7 tournament, he said he could see the difference the taste of winning meant for his players. He’s hoping winning a game on the field will do the same for all students at Westland.
“I’ve got 144 plays now,” Castro said. “I’ve memorized most of them. I’ve got no choice. I’m all in.”
Since beating Mourning High 35-9 on Oct. 5, 2013, Westland Hialeah High has lost a Miami-Dade County-record 34 consecutive games and been shut out 24 times. Over the past three seasons, the team has been outscored 1,412 to 37. Here’s a look at the final scores from each game during the losing streak.
Oct. 11, 2013: lost to Mater Academy 48-20
Oct. 17, 2013: lost to Goleman 43-34
Oct. 24, 2013: lost to Hialeah-Miami Lakes 35-21
Nov. 8, 2013: lost to Dade Christian 54-20
Aug. 29, 2014: lost to Hialeah Gardens 26-0
Sept. 5, 2014: lost to Naples Gulf Coast 72-0
Sept. 12, 2014: lost to Doral Reagan 48-0
Sept. 19, 2014: lost to Miami Springs 48-0
Sept. 27, 2014: lost to American 50-0
Oct. 2, 2014: lost to Mourning 14-7
Oct. 9, 2014: lost to Mater Academy 43-0
Oct. 16, 2014: lost to Goleman 46-0
Oct. 23, 2014: lost to Hialeah-Miami Lakes 71-0
Nov. 7, 2014: lost to Chaminade-Madonna 56-0
Aug. 28, 2015: lost to Hialeah Gardens 55-0
Sept. 3, 2015: lost to Sunset 48-0
Sept. 17, 2015: lost to Doral Academy 55-0
Sept. 25, 2015: lost to Goleman 41-0
Oct. 1, 2015: lost to South Miami 44-0
Oct. 8, 2015: lost to Mourning 41-6
Oct. 15, 2015: lost to Reagan 42-0
Oct. 23, 2015: lost to Mater Academy 48-6
Oct. 29, 2015: lost to Miami Springs 43-0
Nov. 6, 2015: lost to Port Charlotte 62-6
Aug. 26, 2016: lost to Hialeah Gardens 42-6
Sept. 1, 2016: lost to Sunset 47-6
Sept. 16, 2016: lost to Doral Academy 56-0
Sept. 23, 2016: lost to Goleman 42-0
Sept. 30, 2016: lost to South Miami 26-0
Oct. 7, 2016: lost to Mourning 41-0
Oct. 14, 2016: lost to Reagan 49-0
Oct. 21, 2016: lost to Mater Academy 58-0
Oct. 28, 2016: lost to Miami Springs 56-0
Nov. 4, 2016: lost to Port Charlotte 45-0