GOLDEN EAGLES SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS (Naples High School)
As success in the weight program grew, the word spread throughout the school’s other sports.
By Matt Shepard
Published: Fall 2001
For centuries, Mongolian tribesmen in Kirghizia (south-central Russia) have hunted from horseback using a Golden Eagle called a Berkut. It has earned the title “Baddest Bird on the Planet” as it hunts and kills wolves for sport. A Berkut will rocket from the air and drive its talons into a wolf’s back attempting to break the spine. If this doesn’t work, the Berkut will remain anchored on the back with one talon; when the wolf turns to bite, the bird will bind the nose and mouth with the other talon, thus suffocating the wolf.
At Naples High School in Naples, Florida, the Golden Eagles use the Berkut as an inspirational icon and are infusing similar speed and power into their football program and turning a once stagnant program into one of the most respected in Southwest Florida. Coming to Naples in 1998 after a 10 win season at Miami’s American High, Head Coach Bill Kramer’s first priority was to help his players find success in the weight room. “I believe championship programs in any high school sport begin in the weight room; that’s why Coach Dollar was the first coach hired.”
The Hammer-strength dominated facility was revamped with power racks and clean stations; machines were replaced with medballs and dumbbells. The BFS system of records and reps was implemented with a rush of energy by Coach Kramer and defensive coordinator/strength coordinator Sam Dollar.
Hungry to Win
A program that had only one winning season in 14 years, and had not been to the playoffs since 1982, was hungry to win. Players responded to Kramer’s plan: making the strength program mandatory for the summer, calling teammates who failed to show, and holding each other accountable for effort in the weight room.
This commitment equaled early success for the Golden Eagles as they sprinted to a 3-0 start, recording 3 consecutive shut-outs for the first time in school history. Principal Gary Brown knew something special was happening. “Even in those early weeks, we could see the flavor of the school was changing.”
The Impact of Tragedy
Tragedy struck unexpectedly the following week. At the conclusion of a JV game, defensive back Rusty Larabell complained to his older brother, an assistant coach with the Golden Eagles, of a headache. Within moments, Rusty became unconscious and was transported to Naples Community Hospital. After 10 days in a coma, the heart wrenching decision was made to remove Rusty from life support. Rusty Larabell embodied the ideals of being an 11. Hard-working in the weight room and on the field, sincere, responsible, and disciplined, Rusty was a Berkut in the making. Says Kramer, “We had planned on building the program around Rusty and his leadership. You know, in a lot of ways we have done just that.”
Rusty’s death was a huge blow to the morale of the team and school. Hundreds of classmates and their parents wrestled with questions of mortality as the entire school community considered issues of faith and family. Dozens of teammates became active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in search of comfort and to begin the healing process.
Naples football players and coaches struggled to conjure up the enthusiasm and emotion necessary for success on Friday nights and the Golden Eagles absorbed 7 straight defeats to end that first season. However, all was not lost as a spark of new hope was evidenced at the final two games against in-city rivals; both of which were play-off bound. These two games proved to strengthen the resolve and determination of the Golden Eagles. Both games were very close and were characterized by the out-manned Golden Eagles flying around their larger opponents attacking them with a physical brand of football that served notice to fans and opponents alike that the best was yet to come.
Building a New Foundation
To make champions out of his players, Coach Kramer knew he had to build their character. So, as the off-season heated up, the Eagles learned the value of community service. Each week, they set off to the local elementary school and read to the kids. Each player began to see the positive impact that they could have on those around them. In addition, they collected over a thousand toys for children at Christmas.
The team’s effort in the community was matched by great intensity in the weight-room. A team that initially had no players squatting 300 pounds, no one cleaning 200 pounds, and only one player who could bench press 300 pounds began to see records fall daily as players rallied around each other.
Coach Dollar implemented the concept of lifting clubs, where the top 33 players were ranked by the total of the three core lifts (squat, clean, & bench). The three levels are, Berkuts, Golden Eagles, and Eagles. Each athlete was given a t-shirt to wear at every workout to show their “flight status”. The number of 250 pound benches went from zero to fifteen, 225 pound cleaners from zero to twenty-four, and 350 pound squatters from zero to fifteen.
The Second Season
The second season began with raised expectations for Golden Eagle football. Spirit was high and determination was strong and a huge early season shutout victory at perennial district champion Charlotte paved the way to an 8-2 season. Record-holding seniors like Victor Cabral (Ga. Southern), Rob Richter (Elon), and Brandon Marshall were able to taste the sweetness of success after years of bitter defeat. Their enthusiasm, effort and tempo in the weight room spread to others in the program, and the bar measuring excellence in the weight room continued to rise.
As success in the strength program grew, the word spread throughout the school’s other sports. The ladies sprinters & jumpers began lifting right alongside the guys. Graduated senior Danielle Jones went from a 29 foot triple jump her junior year, to winning the district at 34 feet after not missing a workout during the summer. Rachel Threlkeld (Jr.) went from long jumping in the low 14’s to 17 feet, while looking to break into the 59’s in the 400m. The throwers also saw gains as Yaisel Aguilar (Jr.) broke her PR in the shotput by 3 feet after being in a lifting class with Coach Dollar. Threlkeld, Aguilar, and Jessica Skower (Soph.) used the added speed and power to lead the volleyball team to a district runner-up spot as well.
The summer was filled with all kinds of activities. Senior QB (a Southern Illinois University signee) Stanley Bryant spent part of his summer in South Africa on an Athletes in Action mission trip. Twenty-four lineman went to Down and Dirty camp, while seventeen skill players went to the Bishop-Dulligan passing camp. Five days a week for two hour sessions the Eagles pounded the weights, did plyometrics and box jumping, and worked on foot-speed and quickness using dots, hurdles, and form running. Senior DB, Al Green (Liberty signee) saw his total in the three cores explode almost 200 pounds, while gaining fifteen pounds and shaving two tenths off of his forty time.
It’s Not Over Yet
Fall 2000 saw another playoff run for the Golden Eagles with a 7-3 season (3 losses by a total of only 12 points to teams with a 29-1 combined record). Naples defeated Charlotte on the Sunshine Network (broadcast throughout the southeast) in week 3, forcing 6 turnovers and blocking 2 punts. The offense set a new school record for points in a season with 416. Four players received all-state recognition, and for the second year in a row, Naples had the 5-A district player of the year (QB Stanley Bryant = 1,594 passing-17 TD’s, 399 rushing-9 TD’s). Two years of Berkut power and speed equaled the same number of playoff appearances and city championships.
Records continue to fall for the Eagles as their quest for a state championship continues. Winter workouts for 2001 became introspective as Coach Kramer asked players to identify the char