Spring football is back: High school teams hit the field for first practice since 2019 — with lots of new head coaches

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Adam Lichtenstein, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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There has been a sea change in Palm Beach County high school football since the 2020 season ended.

Some of the county’s longest-tenured coaches at established programs — Atlantic’s T.J. Jackson, Park Vista’s Brian Dodds and Wellington’s Tom Abel, to name a few — stepped down from their positions after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

But in West Palm Beach, there’s a familiar face. He’s just wearing a new logo across his chest.

Spring football started across Florida on Monday, and long-time Dwyer coach Jack Daniels, now the head coach at Cardinal Newman, led his first practice since stepping down from the Panthers’ job in 2019.

“It feels good,” Daniels said. “It’s been nothing but great here so far. We’ve got a great group of young guys and an awesome coaching staff, so it’s exciting for us.”

Monday’s spring practices are the first in Florida since 2019. The Florida High School Athletic Association canceled all spring sports last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m excited that I didn’t get to coach during the COVID period,” Daniels said. “This is just a foundation for what we’re going to have in the fall, and it’s just great to get 15 practices in and a game. Kids are excited, too.”

Daniels spent 23 years with Dwyer, turning the Palm Beach Gardens program into a powerhouse. One of Daniels’ adjustments at Cardinal Newman has been getting used to fewer players joining the football team. Dwyer is a Class 7A program, while Cardinal Newman is in Class 3A. Daniels said he would like to see his team stay healthy and be competitive in the spring game.

“At Dwyer, we probably had three times the number of players out,” Daniels said. “Finding some depth right now and just working with what we’ve got for spring and trying to see if we can get some more guys in the fall to help.”

One of the new arrivals to the Palm Beach County head coaching scene is Jamael Stewart. The new Atlantic coach takes over for Jackson after the latter led the Eagles to the Class 7A Tri-County Championship. Stewart spent eight years as an Atlantic assistant coach.

“I think it’s exciting,” Stewart said. “I know the boys are eager. They’ve been in the weight room, also strength and conditioning out on the field, as well, doing all the speed and agility stuff. But now they’re really gearing up, especially with the rising seniors — our current juniors — are very eager to get back out on the field and really showcase their talents.”

Stewart’s team lost 27 seniors from last year’s team. Stewart and the returning Eagles coaching staff will have to rebuild to maintain the level of success they’ve had for the past several years.

“I think it’s a challenge for us, but this is where coaching really happens,” Stewart said. “When you have a young team, this is where you really have to showcase your skills as a coach and develop these kids so we can stay that premier program in Palm Beach County.”

Stewart said after spring practices were canceled last year, he and his players aren’t taking anything for granted.

“The kids are still thinking that it still may be taken away,” Stewart said. “I told them, ‘Look, we can’t control that. The only thing that we can do is just go out one day at a time and give it all we’ve got.’

“From there, the state or the district, if they take it away, they take it away. But at least we’ll be ready for it regardless.”