Posted: 2:08 pm Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012
By Matt Porter
Three seasons ago, Boca Raton Christian football was in danger of going under. One of the smallest programs in Florida, the Blazers had 16 players on their roster. A rash of early-season injuries dropped numbers so low they had to postpone and cancel several games.
They’ve started this year a healthy 5-0.
Boca Christian has the second-ranked offense among small schools (208 points scored) and the third-ranked defense (36 points allowed). Measuring by yards gained and yards allowed, the Blazers are third and fourth, respectively.
Senior quarterback A.J. Puente and running back Caleb Hood are two major reasons for the turnaround. Puente, who attended the school from fourth to ninth grade before transferring to Atlantic, returned to Boca Christian in August. He is second among small-school quarterbacks in passing yards (757) and third in touchdown passes (7).
At Atlantic, Puente started several games as sophomore and took over as a junior. He threw for 1,467 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011, becoming a Post All-Area honorable mention selection.
He was expected to lead Atlantic’s talented offense this fall. But in early August, Atlantic coach Chris Bean told Puente that if the season were to begin then, he was not the starter. Puente left before attending a practice.
Boca Christian athletics director Bill Hood believes Bean told Puente in order to let him leave in advance of his senior season.
“The Atlantic coach, I’m still amazed he said that to A.J.” Hood said. “He didn’t have to do that. He could have kept him around as a backup, let him vie for playing time. But he gave him a chance to be a starter somewhere.”
Bean, however, said he didn’t intend to drive Puente away. “I wanted to get the best out of him,” Bean said. “He performs best when there’s pressure on him and he has to perform. I didn’t want him relaxed. He got comfortable. When he came here as a sophomore, he excelled. When he got in a comfort zone, he didn’t excel.”
Bean wanted Puente to outduel then-starter Jay Mentecky. “I said if we started today,” Bean said. “I didn’t say, ‘You aren’t going to be the starter.’ I wanted him to compete. I knew that would make us better.”
“It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to,” Bean said. “But that’s life. It’s working out for him. I wish him the best. He’s a good kid, a good person.”
Puente, whose mother works at Boca Christian, rejoined a close friend in Hood. A junior, Hood has caught 14 passes for 317 yards (fourth among small-school receivers) and four touchdowns (third). He has 189 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 24 carries.
Bill Hood, Caleb’s father, empathizes with other small programs experiencing a downturn. Miami-Posnack Day, his team’s previously scheduled opponent for Thursday, folded before the season. The Blazers will instead use this as a bye week.
After all, it wasn’t long ago Boca Christian nearly folded. The main reason was a large – for Boca Christian – class of seniors graduating from a successful 2009 team, including tight end Charlie Cowley, who caught more passes than anyone in the area and later signed with Illinois State. Puente left for Atlantic amid the uncertainty.
“A lot of people graduated. A lot of people left,” Hood said. “A.J. was looking around. Like a lot of people, he wasn’t sure if there was going to be football next year.”
It’s similar to the exodus from Jupiter Christian last summer that caused the nadir of a two-time state champion program. But a few good players and strong coaching can turn a program into a winner almost overnight.
This offseason, Boca Christian’s second-year coach, former FSU and NFL center Clay Shiver, hired several coaches with experience and installed a more comprehensive summer weight training program. The program kept advancing from shaky to solid.
“We said, ‘Wow, we’re going to have over 20 guys playing in the fall. This is amazing,'” Hood joked.
Then Puente came back, boosting the Blazers further. He and his receivers – Hood and sophomore Danny Griffey – along with freshman running back Ryan Rhoden and junior Sam Smith form a tough-to-stop offense.
As an independent, they do not qualify for playoffs. But Bill Hood feels as confident as he did when he started the program in 2001.
“We’re really happy with what’s happened,” Hood said. “Now we’re looking at the future. We have good numbers and hopefully our middle-schoolers are seeing that our varsity is a place they want to stay.”