Four years ago, the Estero Wildcats football program was in disarray after being a nonfactor in District 5A for nearly five years. The result was hiring a new varsity coach in Rich Dombrowski in an effort to turn the program around.
"When I first came in, I knew the program needed an overhaul in its mindset," said Dombrowski. "We were what I called the 'homecoming court team' - meaning we were the team that other schools wanted to schedule for their homecoming games because everyone wants to win their homecoming game. They knew they could beat us."
That first year, the program when 0-10. A two-win season followed. Not much improvement, but improvement nonetheless.
Last season, Dombrowski's third, saw the Wildcats open 4-2, leading to speculation that the Wildcats were back and ready to make some noise for the playoffs. A disappointing 0-4 finish, with all but one loss by less than a touchdown, dashed their hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
"We have every single one of our skilled players back," Dombrowski said. "Our runningbacks, wide receivers and quarterback Ryan Sides were all juniors last year and have been in the program since that 0-10 season my first year here. They are hungry to prove themselves."
Further bolstering confidence in the resurgence of the program is the number of underclassmen now in the program.
"When I first got here, we had something like 60 kids in the program to fill both our junior varsity and varsity teams," said Dombrowski. "This year we have 125. I think that turnaround reflects the direction the program is heading with all the hard work we have put in over the last three-plus years."
Sides will have help on offense with the return of wide receivers Justin Milcictch and Zach Culvahouse.
"As Sides goes, so does our team," said Dombrowski.
On defense, the Wildcats are happy to have starting safety Ivan Morales back as the driving force in their secondary, and who runs the stout defense.
Estero's biggest weakness is their interior line play where three key starters on both sides of the ball departed for college.
"I purposely chose to play Barron Collier in our Fall Classic this year because they are a team that I feel we can measure ourselves against," Dombrowski said of his strategy for finding out where his team would be within District 5A-11.
"Barron always seems to be right in the thick of things in terms of the playoff hunt at the end of the year," Dombrowski said. "And they are in a similar position as we are in terms of recruiting for kids against other big schools. If we can hang with them, stay within a point or two, or get a victory, then I know we will have a very good season."
Estero's regular season journey begins on Sept. 2 when they host Ida Baker.
Sept. 2 - vs. Ida Baker
Sept. 9 - vs. Island Coast
Sept. 16 - at North Fort Myers
Sept. 23 - vs. East Lee County-x
Sept. 30 - vs. Palmetto Ridge
Oct. 6 - at Cape Coral-x
Oct. 21 - at Cypress Lake-x
Oct. 28 - vs. Mariner-x
Nov. 4 - at Lehigh-x
Nov. 11 - at Bishop Verot
Head Coach: Rich Dombrowski, 4th year (5-25)
Assistants: Calvin Hudgins (off. coord.), Ken Copeland (off. line), MarcusKlusacek (WR), Gary Gaulden (QB), Steve Fisher (def. line), Patrick McCarthy (LB), John Johnson (CB), Anthony Tunbarello (safties).
Team Colors: Navy blue, white & red
Stadium: Wildcats Stadium, 21900 River Ranch Drive, Estero
Playoff History: 1993 - Fort Pierce Central 27, Estero 17; 1998 - Estero 19, South Fork 18; Estero 20, South Plantation 19; Estero 28, Charlotte 24; Estero 15, Lakeland 14; Osceola 28, Estero 10 (5A Championship); 1999 - Estero 14, Centennial 10; St. Thomas Aquinas 52, Estero 0; 2000 - Estero 32, Jupiter 20; St. Thomas Aquinas 32, Estero 10; 2001 - Estero 35, Miami Washington 15; Estero 38, Lakewood Ranch 12; St. Thomas Aquinas 21, Estero 17.
Home: 2-3 Away: 2-3 District: 1-2
South Fort Myers 49, Estero 7
Estero 42, St. John Neumann 0
Estero 37, Lemon Bay 18
Estero 22, Palmetto Ridge 18
North Fort Myers 16, Estero 8
Estero 46, DeSoto County 12
Fort Myers 34, Estero 27
Hardee County 31, Estero 28
Immokalee 38, Estero 23
Cypress Lake 34, Estero 28