On the surface, Chris Toukonen had no business telling a team on its third coach in five years and hadn’t had a winning season since 2007 that it would win immediately after being hired in January.
Toukonen, an assistant for nine years at powerhouse Cocoa, took a deeper look at the Palmetto Ridge program before applying, though.
What he saw was 18 returning starters from a team that could have finished 8-2 rather than 4-6 if it caught some breaks in the second halves of four close games. It was an easy choice to bring his brand of confidence, which is already rubbing off on the 4-0 Bears, to Collier County.
Palmetto Ridge is off to the best start since the school’s inception in 2004 and faces its 6A-12 opener against Barron Collier Friday with a new outlook.
“I knew there was a potential to win now,” Toukonen said. “As soon as I got here I tried to change the mindset a little bit. From what I heard coming over here, some of these kids went into games not thinking they can win. They didn’t even believe in themselves.”
During the 2014 season, the Bears lost three games by a field goal or less and collapsed in the second half against Gulf Coast.
Former coach Ryan Mitchell was fired in December, opening the door for Toukonen, who reached the state semifinals each year he was at Cocoa and won three state titles.
At the time, Toukonen was the only coach on John Wilkinson’s staff who had never been a head coach.
He didn’t mince words when he met with the Bears for the first time.
“He told us we wouldn’t be rebuilding,” running back Jaheem Washington said. “He knew we were good enough to win every game on our schedule. And we believed him.”
For seniors like Washington and nose guard Joe Chmielowski, that vote of confidence was the first step in transforming into one of the few undefeated teams in Southwest Florida.
“He’s been a game changer,” Chmielowski said.
The biggest change has been the way the team practices. Toukonen, a former offensive coordinator, enjoys putting players in uncomfortable situations when they’re at their lowest point.
On Tuesday toward the end of practice, Toukonen indirectly called out his starting right guard by praising a junior varsity defensive lineman.
“We should move you up to varsity the way your handling (the right guard),” Toukonen said to the defensive lineman.
He then turned his attention to the offensive lineman.
“What are you going to do about it?” he asked. “Are you going to sulk about it or play better?”
“I like to have them deal with adversity in practice, especially the offensive guys,” Toukonen said after practice. “At some point in the game they are going to deal with adversity. I try to put a little pressure on them during practice, especially if they mess up and then put even more pressure on them.”
The Bears have thrived under pressure this season, a 180-degree shift from 2014. They posted a one-point win over Lehigh to open the season and outlasted Riverdale 41-38 before blowing out North Port and Estero.
On offense, Washington leads Lee and Collier counties in rushing (105 carries, 810 yards). Senior quarterback Cody Young has proven to be a valuable leader and has thrived in Toukonen’s offense, throwing for 664 yards and five touchdowns.
The defense is giving up 14 points a game this season heading into the showdown with 4-1 Barron, which sports a strong offensive line and plenty of weapons in the backfield and on the outside.
Toukonen has his team believing in itself, and they’re not shy about voicing their expectations. Chmielowski is a prime example.
“We’ve got Barron Collier coming up and we’re going to beat them and be 5-0,” Chmielowski said. “ … This is one of the first years where confidence exudes throughout the team. We’ve watched (Barron Collier’s) film. We know we’re good enough to beat them. We know that we’re going to win going into the game if we play our best. And coach Toukonen is going to make us play our best.”
To outsiders, that may seem like bulletin board material for Barron Collier. For Toukonen-coached players, they believe it to be the truth.