The St. John Neumann football team hosts Champagnat Catholic on Friday night in a Class 2A regional final. SAMANTHA HUSSEY/SPECIAL TO CSI
When you see a golfer on TV end his round by sinking a clutch putt, you might hear the analyst quip, “Dinner’s going to taste good tonight.”
If the St. John Neumann football team can dethrone Class 2A champ Champagnat Catholic (which eliminated SJN last year) in Friday’s regional final at SJN, you better believe that late-night dinner consisting of Thanksgiving Day leftovers is going to taste real good.
“That’ll be a good refrigerator raid Friday night if we can get a victory,” Celtics coach Damon Jones said after practice on a cool Thanksgiving morning Thursday.
As SJN players left practice to ready for the holiday feast with their families, Jones said he wasn’t worried about having a bunch of bloated Celtics take the field against Champagnat (7-5). He trusted that his guys would show restraint and continue the business-like approach that’s gotten them within three wins of a state championship.
“This group’s mature,” Jones said of his 10-1 team. “They’re pretty dialed in and focused on what they gotta do.”
Thursday marked the third time Jones — now in his third season as Celtics coach — experienced a Thanksgiving Day practice.
As a freshman on the 1987 Lely High state finalist squad, he recalled a Thanksgiving night walkthrough that had to be moved inside the Trojans’ gym due to rain. (Lely hosted the Class 3A state title game that weekend, losing 35-7 to Live Oak-Suwannee.) During Jones’ stint as an assistant coach at Immokalee High from 1995-2001, the Indians held a Thanksgiving practice ahead of their regional finals appearance. (Jones’ son Jensen, the Celtics’ star quarterback and state touchdown leader, was born the following week.)
Football practice on Thanksgiving is an entirely new experience at St. John Neumann. The Celtics had never won a playoff game until last week’s 55-14 home romp of Glades Day (the first-ever postseason contest on SJN’s home field).
“It was fun. It was a great experience,” sophomore lineman Anthony Votta said of the Turkey Day practice. “Definitely, I want to (do it) again.”
This Thanksgiving is a special one for the Jones family, which, Coach Jones said, would be spent “having a blast at Papa Jones’ and Grandma’s (home).” His sons Jensen (the state’s leader in touchdowns) and Dawson (a freshman receiver) have enjoyed their first and only season as Celtics teammates.
“This has been one of those special years having both of my boys and the opportunity to coach both of them and then get one last chance to play together and spend Thanksgiving at practice and (play tomorrow’s) game,” Jones said. “This is one of those things I know I’ll cherish probably more as a father than a coach.”
Jones marvels at Jensen’s ability to put the food away at the dinner table.
“Jensen can eat,” he said. “That boy, he burns through it, and he can eat.”
Coach Jones sounds like he can pack it in himself. He’s a big fan of “the trimmins”.
“I’m not a big turkey guy; it’s a little dry,” Jones said. “But I can eat some stuffing and sweet potato casserole, and Grandma makes cream corn and rolls and mashed potatoes and gravy. So I’m usually going to load up on the sides, and usually pick at the ham — she always makes ham, too.”
Speaking of turkey and sides, Votta and two of his fellow Celtics linemen, junior Andrew Saluan and sophomore Josh Costain, “weighed in” on their Thanksgiving meal choices. All three agreed that the sides — not the turkey — are what makes the meal.
“I put as much on the plate as I possibly can,” said Costain, who, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, may have the largest frame to fill among the Celtics.
Saluan, who’s listed at 5-8 and 195, is one of the smaller SJN linemen. Still, he doesn’t let that stop him — “Put everything on (the plate) together and eat it all,” he said.
Saluan: “Definitely” mashed potatoes.
Costain: “I’m a big mashed potatoes and green bean casserole guy.”
Votta: White and dark.
Saluan: “At least” three.
Costain: “On a good year, probably three or four, but I usually go at least three.”
Votta: “Probably” three.
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