Xavier McCray is standing in the Cypress Lake weight room, counting up to 10.
It’s almost becoming routine, this retreat into the school on days like this. Days filled with lightning and rain.
But it’s what you do if you’re a high school football coach in Florida. You fast track to the weight room on a lightning delay. Or you watch film. McCray’s in his second year with Cypress Lake, a program that rarely wins, and through four games the Panthers have shown promise, beating Cape Coral 55-41 on Friday.
The weight room is becoming their proving ground.
“Every week, we battle,” McCray says, his team now standing at 2-2. “We don’t have a cupcake game. Every week is a challenge for us. So for our kids to keep battling each and every week, that shows us something.”
Next up is Immokalee (1-4, 0-0 District 5A-12), a team coached by former Panthers coach Dale More. And that presents its own little storyline, considering a few holdovers from his run as coach are still playing for the team today.
“I respect him, even though he’s over there,” senior Clifford Moore said.
The weights come crashing down and McCray gives his team another order. “You go on my count! Not on your count! My count!”
It may seem like McCray yells a lot, but no one seems to notice. The athletic director is standing in the doorway smiling. The players continue to pile on weight, step on benches and squat down low.
Some may need this hard love, even if they don’t like it. It’s the way McCray operates. Just recently, two players were dismissed from the team.
“I get mad sometimes, but I come back better,” said Trent Rogers, the team’s starting quarterback.
The sophomore is certainly one of the main reasons why the Panthers, who have won two straight games, have surged in recent weeks but he’s not the only one. Five different players scored on Friday, led by Moore’s three touchdowns and 272 yards on the ground.
This is refreshing, considering Cypress Lake hasn’t had a winning season in the last decade. The Panthers haven’t won more than two games since 2010.
“We try to get the ball to our playmakers, the guys who have the skills,” McCray said. “We give the ball to Cliff. We give the ball to Herbert (Riggins). We give the ball to Yasir (Abdullah). We try to give it to Trent and let him do his magic.
“That’s the key. To give it to every one player and make sure they touch it.”
The Panthers haven’t had this many weapons in years. And even in losses, including that 35-0 shutout to Fort Myers, McCray says his team was able to chew up yards and run the ball.
So the hard love is working. McCray drinks ginger tea and adds a touch of honey when he gets home, so he can come back and do the same thing. His voice can be heard echoing throughout the halls most days.
“He talks to us like young men,” Moore said of McCray. “He teaches us the ins and the outs of the game. And he’s always positive. Sometimes when he gets negative, it’s him getting negative to bring out a positive. And he’s just on us all the time and trying to teach us to do the right thing.”
Moore, who stands no taller than about 5-foot-6, is seeing the payoff as a senior. He’s rushed for 518 yards and scored four times, giving the Panthers a reliable ball carrier in between the tackles.
Rogers watched Moore take a hand-off in the third quarter against Cape Coral and turn a simple gain into a large one.
“He went one way and turned the other way and that was pretty good vision,” Rogers said. “He just ran up the field.”
But Rogers, playing varsity quarterback for the first time, has also kept the Panthers balanced. He’s averaged nearly 113 yards per game in the air, throwing just one interception to two touchdowns. Those QB smarts have come over time, he said.
In the preseason against Riverdale, for instance, he said he stared down receivers and made poor decisions with the ball. Four games into the season, however, Moore says Rogers knows when to run with the ball when the options aren’t there.
“Those guys can hurt you at any moment,” McCray says. “And once they start feeling themselves and start feeling what we’re doing and get comfortable, they’re going to be dangerous. We just have to give them time to do it.”
With games left against Immokalee, Lemon Bay, Dunbar, Lely and Estero, there are winnable matchups left on the schedule. Those teams currently are a combined 7-15.
“It’s really just all about me and my team going out there and winning,” Moore said.
The lightning warning has officially ended, and now it’s time for the Panthers to get back on the field. McCray is in the hallway, near the end of an interview, but not before he notices something amiss.
“Hey, you should be out there already!” McCray says to a few players huddling in the hallway.
In a few more seconds, McCray will be out the door and coaching again.