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LYNN — Over the past three years, KIPP Academy football coach Jim Rabbitt and his staff have laid out the groundwork to create a winning culture. But it was up to their players to buy into that system and, with the help of solid leadership, they’ve gone above and beyond.
“All of the captains here are juniors,” Jose Castillo, one of five Panthers co-captains, said. “We’ve all been here since day one as freshmen. From the very beginning, coach Rabbitt has been talking about setting up a culture of winning. We’ve tried to embody that in our work ethic and everything we do every day. Whether it’s in the classroom, the weight room or on the field, we’ve just been working hard.”
Castillo, along with fellow captains Taj King, Daniel Oluwasuyi, Mike Brice and Dave Filias, and the rest of the team went through plenty of growing pains in their first two seasons. The Panthers chose to learn from those miscues and the dedication to improving never stopped.
“We’ve had to eat a lot of losses over the years,” King, a wide receiver and defensive back, said. “It’s just about learning from that. Learning from those experiences and gaining experience over time has made us better.”
KIPP’s improvements have shown this fall. The Panthers qualified for the Division 8 North state tournament for the first time and hit the ground running, winning the program’s first sectional title with a 49-13 win over Keefe Tech last Friday.
“It means a lot just to have something to prove that we’re better now,” Castillo said. “It’s a trophy that shows we’ve grown from freshman year. We started 1-6 and now we’re 8-2. It’s a lot better.
“The environment has just gotten way better,” Brice, a two-way lineman, said of the success. “We know we’ve been getting consistently better and the hard work has always been there. We’ve seen that pay off with the improvement, especially this year.”
This Panthers team has clicked on both sides of the ball, starting with a defense that has allowed just 21 points this postseason. Filias leads the Panther in tackles at linebacker and Brice, who credits the success to the chemistry the group has built together, isn’t far behind.
“We’re a very close group,” Brice said. “We’ve all grown up together. We spend a lot of time together. So when it comes to preparing for a game it’s easy to just do it with my brothers. We all know each other’s game. We all know what everyone is good at and what we all individually need to work on. That makes it all work really well as a team.”
On the offensive side, quarterback Piero Canales and King help the Panthers get it done through the air while Oluwasuyi paces the run game. Oluwsuyi gives all the credit to the guys up front.
“I have to give the credit to the offensive line,” Oluwasuyi said. “They grind every play to make holes. In pass protection they give plenty of time to throw the ball. Without them there wouldn’t be an offense and things wouldn’t go as smooth as they have.”
KIPP’s work is far from over. The Panthers have shifted their focus to the Division 8 state semifinal, where they will take on unbeaten South champion West Bridgewater for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium. For the Panthers, it will be all about sticking to the game plan.
“We have to execute the game plan that the coaches put out for us,” Brice said. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks. And that’s why the defense has been clicking, the great game plan. We all just have to do our jobs.”
KIPP plays West Bridgewater Saturday (11) at Woburn High School.