Without a win last season, the ODA football team is undefeated with Friday’s playoff game
SARASOTA — Realizing he needed to fortify his football team, freshman head coach Rob Hollway scoured the halls of the Out-of-Door Academy in search of talent.
In that chase, the 36-year-old hit a home run.
Hollway enlisted five Thunder baseball players to help turn around a program that ended 0-5 last season under then-head coach Jon Haskins. The turnaround was 180 degrees, as the ODA replaced the “0” with an “8” and the “5” with a zero.
As the only undefeated team in the region, the 8-0 Thunder host St. Edward’s Friday in the quarterfinals of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference playoffs. Three wins give ODA the state title. After an 0-5 2021 season, when injuries and player shortages limited Haskins’ roster to the twenties, Hollway now has 38 players at his disposal.
None are more important than the six – five from baseball, one from athletics – who sparked a push with a needed addition of tenacity and leadership. Hollway was so desperate for help that he was willing to take anyone “who looked like he could walk and chew gum”.
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Linebacker Charlie Tack, a baseball player for the Thunder, was one of Hollway’s liaisons between the coach and the ODA baseball players. “I was friends with all of them,” the junior said. “It was really just ‘get out for your senior year.’ “
“Jack Hobson is the leader of the (baseball) band,” Hollway said, “and he was the first one to fall. Once he got out, the other kids started doing it.”
Hollway, whose grandfather Robert Hollway was head coach of the St. Louis Football Cardinals in 1971 and 1972, served as athletic director for three years at a Minneapolis high school before taking the job vacated by Haskins. Prior to that, he coached for nine years at the high school and college levels.
“Baseball players bring with them a culture of winning,” Hollway said. “I don’t have to train them in the dressing room. If someone is missing, they take care of it. There is a leadership in the dressing room that we maybe lacked.”
According to Tack, the ODA baseball players brought an element not usually associated with the sport. “I think it’s definitely toughness and athleticism, but probably the most is leadership.”
With the exception of Tack, all of the other baseball players turned footballers – Hobson, Griffin DeRusso, Luca Marino, Giovanni Giuliani, as well as pole vaulter Jason Albano – are seniors.
“I think I convinced them on the fun side,” said Hollway, who plays music in practice.
“I like to think I’m the coach of the players. When I saw the youngsters in the spring, I knew we had a chance.”
Of all the additions, none have been bigger than DeRusso, a transfer from the San Francisco area. In his eight wins, the Thunder averaged 30 points per game while allowing 13. And of ODA’s 324 total points, the senior running back tallied 102. The 5-foot-11, 200 pounds rushed for 17 touchdowns while rushing for 1,127 yards in eight Thunder games.
DeRusso isn’t lacking in confidence either. When he arrived on the ODA campus, he asked Hollway what the school record for rushing yards in a season was.
“A kid does something like that,” Hollway said, “it’s not something you forget easily.”
“I’m not really surprised,” he said. “That’s the job I did in the offseason. I want to make a difference with the team and I want to take them as far as possible.”
What makes DeRusso effective, Hollway said, is that he travels north and south quickly. One cut, and he’s gone.
“It includes hitting the holeshot and heading north and south,” Hollway said. “We don’t have breakaway speed or a 6-10 wide receiver. We control the football and play solid defense. We throw the ball 5-10 times a game. That’s all we have to throw .”
And that reflects the offensive line of the ODA. In a school of just 500 students, Hollway has five O linemen who are 250 pounds or more.
“It’s amazing,” DeRusso said. “I wouldn’t be who I am without them. They totally make me who I am. I think my job is really easy because of them.”
No one expected the ODA to reach the playoffs, let alone finish the regular season undefeated. But the Thunder did, and they hope to make the most of it starting Friday.
“I think we’re changing the culture,” Hollway said.