Lions begin new season by getting ‘fresh’ with ‘super’ Sentinels

First Baptist Academy's Rich Mellien (7) and Dario Araya celebrate Mellien's second-quarter touchdown run during the Lions' season-opening home win Friday over Evangelical Christian School. GREGG HARDY/CSI


For the last month or so, talk around Southwest Florida high school football circles has revolved around a newly constructed “super team” at Fort Myers-based Evangelical Christian School.

Along with new Sentinels coach Earnest Graham (the former University of Florida and NFL running back), ECS was the destination for a quintet of talented transfer players this summer — not the least of which was former Immokalee High star quarterback and Army commit R.J. Rosales.

All the preseason hype surrounding the Sentinels was of no relevance to First Baptist Academy coach Billy Sparacio, though … even if his Lions were Evangelical’s Week 1 opponent.

Sparacio had other concerns in late July and early August, like getting the 17 freshmen (including a new starting quarterback) on FBA’s 36-man roster varsity-ready.

Clearly, the Lions’ coaching staff brought those inexperienced players up to speed. They made all the plays when it counted in a 27-12 home win over the Sentinels — FBA’s sixth straight victory in the series between two Class 2A-Region 4 rivals.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images from the ECS-FBA season opener

“I’ve been real proud of a lot of teams here at FBA, been really blessed with some great teams and some great games. Tonight was a really neat night,” said Sparacio, who started the Lions football program a decade ago while also serving as FBA’s athletic director over that time. “We’ve got a lot of young kids. I’m really, really proud of them. They fought hard, they believed in what we were trying to teach them. They stayed the course.

“I am so proud of our coaches; they work their butts off all the time. (The coaches) pour their guts into the kids, and those kids give back because I think they see the heart and soul that the coaches put into their lives — not as athletes, but as people.”

Playing in his first varsity game as a ninth-grader, Rich Mellien introduced himself to Southwest Florida by running for 118 yards — at 8.4 yards per carry — and two touchdowns. Several of his runs — including a 12-yarder on a third-and-10 rollout from inside his own 5 (with the Lions clinging to a 20-12 third-quarter lead) — gave FBA a fresh set of downs.

(Mellien has assumed signal-caller duties from Brady Dean, who is now enrolled at St. Thomas Aquinas.)

Although he only completed 3 of 12 passes (for 75 yards), Mellien made each of them count. All three went to freshmen, and all three were big plays: a 22- and 36-yarder to Olsen Henry; and a 17-yard touchdown dart over the middle to Donovan Sealy.

FBA and its quarterback Rich Mellien (7) put one past the ECS defense on this gadget play late in the second quarter. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Just prior to Sealy’s grab, Mellien had his number called on a fourth-and-long sweep/toss-reverse pass play. Colby Gonzalez took the toss-reverse from Tyler Coleman and lofted a pass to Mellien, who was waiting all alone down the right side. With seemingly the entire ECS defense closing in on him, Mellien juked and fought his way down to the Sentinels’ 17.

“My coach told me, ‘They’re keying on our running backs, run all you got … because I was tired, right?” Mellien said — that last part more statement than question. “So I’m like, ‘Let me do for the team; so I ran outside.”

Sparacio said of Mellien: “He’s a super talented kid and made tremendous plays tonight with the athleticism that God has blessed him with. Tremendous heart, toughness, extending runs, breaking tackles.”

Then, in rapid-fire succession, Sparacio sang the praises of his other freshmen standouts: “Michael Votta, unbelievable night tonight. Jordan Jean Luc, unbelievable night. I can just keep rattling them off. Preston Shemansky … all freshmen, all freshmen. Those catches by Olsen Henry, I mean, unbelievable. Just absolutely awesome — each guy, one after another after another. I was just really impressed.”

Mellien, when asked if he felt any added pressure by going up against Rosales, said, “I thrive on it.” Putting the focus back on the team, Mellien said, “We’ve been working hard for this.”

Save for a few of Rosales’ trademark explosive plays, FBA’s defense was able to frustrate the Sentinels. The Lions ‘D’ made, arguably, its biggest play just before halftime. With ECS at the 6-yard line (they had been at the FBA 1 before a penalty sent them back) and one second remaining on the clock, Dario Araya and Jimmy Ridinger combined to sack Rosales, preserving the Lions’ eight-point halftime lead.

“That was a huge play for us … I mean flat-out huge,” Sparacio said.

The FBA defense did get lucky, though, in the fourth quarter when Rosales barely overthrew receiver Sean Shore down the left side. Had they connected, it would’ve surely been a touchdown; and the Sentinels could have tied the game at 20-all with a two-point conversion.

Earlier in the fourth, after Mellien had a pass intercepted, Votta intercepted Rosales and returned it 22 yards.

Mellien’s second touchdown run effectively iced the game, but it was Trent Wilson who put the exclamation mark on the night by intercepting Rosales on the game’s final play. Wilson also recovered an ECS fumble in the first quarter.

“Our defense did an absolutely fabulous job of holding them to 12 points with that kind of skill,” Sparacio said. “R.J. Rosales is a very good quarterback. We did the things we needed to do.”

Said Araya: “They’re a very good team, and (Rosales) is probably the best quarterback I’ve played against. Our game plan was based around him because he’s such a great player. We just had to keep him contained. … The coaches even said, ‘You know we’re going to give up a few big runs, but it’s fine.”


FBA’s Dario Araya admits to getting “lucky” on this first-quarter special teams play. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Araya, a junior, had the game’s first big play when he fielded a first-quarter ECS punt that took a fortunate FBA bounce. With no one around him, Araya secured the football and ran it back 20 yards to set up the Lions’ first touchdown.

Araya said he thought he heard First Baptist coaches yelling for him to field the punt.

Turns out, they were urging him not to touch it.

“It was just luck,” Araya said.

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