When Nick Bigica took over Golden Gate in 2019 and James Delgado assumed the reins at Immokalee in 2021, the two entered situations in which each program had serious fixing to do.
The Titans, despite going 6-4 in the season before Bigica took the helm, didn’t make the playoffs. The program is still looking for that coveted first playoff appearance in program history since opening in 2004.
Since 2018, Immokalee entered this year with a 16-32 record (.333). Before Delgado took over last season, Immokalee went 12-27. The last time the program had a four-year stretch like that was from 1960-63, when Immokalee posted a record of 9-27 (.250). The school opened one year prior in 1959.
With high expectations this season, Golden Gate and Immokalee will look to write new chapters this season in their respective histories, facing off in The News-Press/Naples Daily News Game of the Week on Friday.
“The one thing I always say every time this week rolls around no matter who the coach is there is that Immokalee speed is Immokalee speed,” Bigica said. “You’ve got to be able to run with those guys, and they’ve got guys that can run. We have to be sound with what we do. Things that work against other teams may not necessarily work against Immokalee, because of the speed they have. You couple that with the coaching they have there now, it puts them in a great position to be successful.”
Added Delgado: “I think if you really look at Golden Gate and look at us, there’s a lot of similarities. Although coach Bigica has been there for quite a while, some of his supporting cast, some of his assistants, these are their second years also. You can almost consider their time there together similar to ours along with the growth of their team from last year to this year, it’s significant. They’re a much better team with a better understanding of what they’re trying to get done. They have done a good job of identifying the tools and assets they have within their roster. You can see it on film. You know what they’re trying to get done.”
The Indians have desperately been seeking stability and success for a program that has high expectations year in and year out. They’ve finally got that with Delgado leading the program, who turned the program around last year, going 4-5 with three one-score losses after winning a combined three games over the last two seasons.
Before taking over after the 2021 season, Delgado had to follow and rebuild the program after a rough stretch. The season before Delgado was announced as the program’s next head coach, Immokalee took a backseat to virtually everyone locally after opting to be an FHSAA Independent. Under Johnny Smith, the program had less than 30 players on its roster, making it unsafe for them to play in Class 7A.
“I think it’s the belief that they have,” Delgado said. “I think the old adage of how much you know, and as a coach, it’s how much you care. I think our players know that we care about them. We love them. They know we’re there for them. I feel like it’s something that’s easily taken for granted if you’re not careful, and maybe it’s not that seemingly important when it comes down to what you see on Friday night. We coach kids Sunday to Sunday, 24/7, 365. When it comes down to the care, the love, and the true sense of family and the ability to be called upon, and then answer the call, that’s everything to our players.
“I don’t think anybody in Immokalee wants to leave Immokalee. I think our kids grow up seeing, believing, and looking forward to playing in red and white and being Indians. To me, that’s stuff that shouldn’t ever happen at our place. I do think these are kids that care about their coaches, care about each other. The thought of losing a player to another place, it’s not something that we should have to worry about as long as we’re doing things the right way, and that includes winning. You’ve got to win in order to hold that standard.”
The Titans have found their footing as a program and at the key skill positions, headlined by collegiate prospects John Lee Honorat, Trayvon Jean, and Bradley Martino. All three made impacts in last week’s win over Victory Christian, as Honorat ran for 130 yards and a touchdown, while Jean ran for 112. Martino hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass on the team’s first drive and never looked back.
The Fils-Aime brothers, Micah and Malachi, each posted two sacks, while Makendy Jean, Claude Bastien, and Johnny Charles posted one sack each. P.J. Gibbs, Golden Gate’s defensive coordinator, will look to carry that momentum into this week’s contest against a program that just put up 47 points on a Sarasota Booker squad that is poised to make a playoff run in Class 2S.
“Coach (P.J.) Gibbs is obviously a football kook,” Bigica said. “I call him that a lot, but our assistant coaches in coach (Justin) Dyer, coach (Andre) Powell, coach (Jim) Hepler, and coach (Jordan) Hampton. Those guys work endlessly to make sure the schemes in because it’s a complicated scheme. We’re doing a lot of different things. Putting the kids in the right place, first and foremost, and then the kids buying into the program. This class of 2024 is unbelievable. We’ve built around this class. The younger guys have followed their lead.”
Bigica and Delgado believe this year could be as balanced of a Collier County Athletic Conference in quite a long time, which could make Friday’s Week 2 matchup an early bellwether on how competitive it truly can be this season.
“I do think that things go in cycles,” Delgado said. “It’s high school football. In the traditional sense, we shouldn’t be recruiting to make sure that we have the same caliber athlete every year. We take what we have, and we coach it up and get it to the level that we can. There is a lot of change within the county, between head coaching changes in the last few years, and also the changes within youth football and the things that are going on.”
“Obviously, most people’s ultimate goal is to make the playoffs and make a deep playoff run, and hopefully win a state title,” Bigica said. “Having a division like the CCAC prepares you for that. Whoever comes out of this buzzsaw is poised to do well in the playoffs. You have those other schools with the county up north, and the county north of that with the one or two schools that are pretty good. We’re poised to play with those guys because of how hard the schedule is during the season.
“It sets us up for our goal… Beating a county opponent to open up your stretch would be huge, especially one as good as Immokalee. But we know the bar in the county for a long time has been Naples High School. If we’re lucky enough to pull off a win this week, it puts us in a good position to go into Staver Field in a couple weeks, where we want to be.”
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