Sometimes a change of scenery can be good for the soul – even when you are on top of the world.
Rocco Casullo made the decision to do just that last January when he stepped down as coach at St. Thomas Aquinas, less than a month after winning his second state title in three years with the Raiders.
"God has a plan for us all,” Casullo, 38, said Monday night. “It was a great 14 years at St. Thomas. It made me a better coach and an even better person. At the end of the day, things happen. Here, I am at a school that's hungry and I can build my own program. I'm really excited."
Despite receiving job offers at more established high school programs in Florida and even a few assistant jobs in college, Casullo opted to start fresh at little-known Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, a program his Raiders’ nationally-ranked team crushed 57-0 in the opening round of last year’s playoffs.
Why? There are several reasons, Casullo explained.
One, his wife grew up in Hialeah and had family and friends pushing them to stay in the area. Secondly, as the son of a longtime college and NFL coach, Casullo didn’t want to miss seeing his two kids, Lexi (5) and CJ (3), grow up. And lastly, the administration at Mater not only allowed Casullo to bring in the assistants he wanted, they also “gave me the keys to develop a strong football program.”
“Being a charter school it’s almost like going to private school for free – so the education is great and we get kids from Broward and Dade that want to go there,” Casullo said.
“Mater’s baseball team won state two years ago and then goes to the [state] final four. The basketball team is very good. The administration understands the importance of having strong athletic programs. The way I look at it, I walked into a really good situation.”
Casullo, who went 46-9 in his four seasons at Aquinas, probably isn’t ready to take down the Raiders just yet. But his Lions should win District 16-7A this season and make the playoffs for the second year in a row, despite bringing back only four starters on each side of the ball.
Not only has Mater added a long list of transfers since Casullo’s arrival, there also was plenty of young talent already there. Casullo said the program’s middle school team went 6-1 and the junior varsity was undefeated.
Mater has a talented collection of recruits in the Class of 2017, led by cornerback Latavious Brini (6-2, 190) and receiver Shimore Stern (6-5, 200). Brini has offers from Louisville and FIU and is getting a good look from University of Miami coaches, Casullo said. Stern has an offer from Louisville.
With two former West Virginia grad assistants on his staff, Casullo said the Lions will likely run West Virginia’s 3-3-stack defense and take advantage of the speed and size he has in the secondary. Offensively, he said, they’ll likely run a one-back system – like he did at Aquinas.
“We’re going to open up the offense and throw the ball a lot more than we did before,” said senior quarterback T.J. Herrington, who threw for 1,054 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. “I’ve got some great receivers to throw it to in Malik Brown, Shimore Stern. It’s exciting.”
The Lions will have new Nike uniforms this season and new weight room additions are also being made.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” said Jeff Pond, the team’s new defensive coordinator and a former graduate assistant at West Virginia. “We were 22 helmets behind when practice started. We had more than 75 kids out there. There’s definitely talent and skill on offense and the back on defense is two dep. On the offensive line we have some holes to fill, but we’re getting there.”
The way the playoffs line up, if Mater can win the district and then its first two playoff games there’s a chance Casullo could face his old team at Aquinas in the regional final. But nobody on the staff is looking that far ahead just yet.
“We’re just worried about Carol City in our first exhibition game [Thursday] and Killian in our season opener for now,” Pond said with a smile. “It’s all about building a foundation for now.”
DISTRICT 16-7A OVERVIEW
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER
▪ Darryel Bethune, Miami Springs: The 5-10, 215-pound senior running back and linebacker led the Golden Hawks with 862 yards rushing and eight touchdowns last season. He also racked up 48 tackles and a team-leading five sacks.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER
▪ Latavious Brini, Mater Academy: The 6-2, 190-pound junior cornerback is probably the top recruit in the entire district. He has offers from Louisville and FIU.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Mater Academy, 2. Miami Springs, 3. South Miami, 4. Reagan, 5. Doral Academy, 6. Goleman, 7. Sunset, 8. Mourning, 9. Westland Hialeah
Aug. 29: Mater vs. Killian (Southridge). Sept. 3: Reagan vs. Doral (Milander). Sept 4: South Miami vs. Mater (Curtis). Sept. 17: Miami Springs at South Miami (Tropical). Oct. 9: South Miami at Reagan. Oct 15: Mater vs. Miami Springs (Milander). Oct. 22: Reagan vs. Miami Springs (Milander).