In second year, Tocoi Creek off to 3-1 start with big goals in mind

Tocoi Creek defensive player Carson Collins celebrates after a play against Beachside in Week 1. (Kevin Nguyen, News4JAX)

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – It’s natural for a new football program to experience growing pains. At Tocoi Creek, those growing pains lasted less than a season.

After finishing Year 1 by winning three of the final six games, the Toros have opened their sophomore season with three wins in four tries. It’s been a fast track to success fueled by some traditional techniques, including hitting the weight room early.

“I think when we started lifting, you know, we went right at it during the season,” said head coach Mike Kolakowski. “So in November, our kids were bought into our lifting program. And now, you see our sophomore class.”

Tocoi Creek travels to Clay to face the Blue Devils on Friday a week after beating Ridgeview 60-10. The only loss on the season came against unbeaten Bishop Kenny, 25-13.

The offense has been predicated on a strong ground attack. Senior running back Wendell Dean, who averages 124 yards per game, has seven rushing touchdowns. He is one of 26 seniors on the roster. Last year, in the first season of the school, there were no seniors on the team. He was at Bartram Trail before the Tocoi Creek zone was drawn.

“We worked really hard over the offseason,” Dean said. “He’s really good with the kids. Everyone in the school loves him. He’s probably the best teacher in the school, honestly. He’s just good at communicating with kids.”

Kolakowski is a defensive-minded coach — “old school,” by his own admission. Before joining Tocoi Creek, he was a defensive coordinator at Findlay University and before that at Mercer, Youngstown State, Cincinnati and California University of Pennsylvania, where he was the head coach for five seasons.

“For someone so old, he’s a ball of fire. He gets after us, we get after him. All around,” said senior safety Antonio Juarez, who would have played at Nease had Tocoi Creek not been opened. We got sick of losing. We knew we wouldn’t have as many excuses as we did last year. This year, we knew we would have to stop complaining about the little things and worry about the big things.”

When Kolakowski was hired, he said he wanted to build a program, not just a team.

“We have a really good senior class. I’m indebted to them forever. They’re very special to my heart,” Kolakowski said. “They bought in. And once they started buying, and then once they understood me, and what we’re about, that has made that made it that’s made us a better football team this year.”

Kolakowski wasn’t the obvious choice for the head coaching job. There were scores of candidates who had high school coaching experience in the state of Florida who applied for the job. A strong recommendation from former St. Augustine High School head coach Joey Wiles made a difference.

“Mike called me and said he was looking at the high school ranks. I knew that he and [Tocoi Creek athletic director] Jeff [Holland] would be a perfect fit,” Wiles said. “I told Mike, you aren’t going to work for a better guy than Jeff Holland. And they have a great principal. Then I called Jeff, and I told him there’s a guy you probably want to talk to.”

Wiles said he has known and respected Kolakowski for decades. It was an easy recommendation to make.

“Mike is one of about five guys who I always kept on speed dial,” Wiles said. “When we played games and someone gave us problems, I would get on the phone with one of those guys who I’ve relied on for 30 years.”

Kolakowski’s adjustment to coaching at the high school level has been aided by a pair of former head coaches on his staff. Former Menendez head coach Kyle Skipper is the Toros offensive coordinator. He was already at the school when Kolakowski was hired. Former Middleburg head coach Karl Smeltzer is on the defensive staff. Former Jaguars’ wide receiver Ernest Wilford also volunteers on the staff.

“I felt very fortunate about that. Because on defense, I was going to run, I was going to teach somebody,” Kolakowski said. “When Coach Schmelzer started getting, we didn’t hire him till after the spring. And he came on over. And he’s just been a godsend to me also, just a calming voice. And he’s helped me tremendously.”

In the spring before the first season of football, there were no facilities to utilize as the school was still being built. Instead, they practiced at Pacetti Bay Middle School. The locker room wasn’t completed until mid-October and Tocoi Creek didn’t play a true home game until the field was completed in November. Now, all the pieces are in place and the Toros are looking like an established program, just as Kolakowski envisioned when he took the job.

About the Author:

Cole joined News4Jax full-time in January 2017, but he has been a part of the team since he began filling in as a sports anchor in 2005.