Area players part of Stetson football
Aug. 31, 2013, is a date Wesley Chapel High graduate Keegan Tanner has been working toward for nearly two years. On that day, Tanner and the rest of his teammates on the Stetson University football team will play the first college football game in DeLand since the Hatters disbanded the program after the 1956 season. "When I went on my recruiting trip, there was nothing where they said the field would be other than a bunch of dirt," said Tanner, who will play slot receiver and return punts and kickoffs. "It was weird at first. Now, when you drive through town, you see signs for the inaugural game and everyone is wearing Stetson gear. You see the stadium almost done, and it's almost here." Spence Whittaker and Dylan Rutledge, graduates of Mitchell and River Ridge and the other 75 Hatters spent the entire 2012 season training for the Division I program's return to the gridiron."That was the first time since I started playing flag football when I was 4 that I didn't play a competitive game for a whole year," said Whittaker, a cornerback. "You can feel that anticipation in every guy. I'd say excited is the wrong word. At this point I think we're just ready to get out there because It has been so long." It's also the first time Rutledge has gone an entire season without playing football since picking up the game at age 7, but the defensive end said the chance to start something new intrigued him. "My old high school coach, Ryan Benjamin, was part of the first football class going into USF," Rutledge said. "He told me about being part of building something while staying close to home." Rutledge said much of the last year was used developing team roles along with getting bigger, faster and stronger. "Coming to a program where everyone is new is weird - not having established leaders, but after a year, we've had guys step up," Rutledge said. "I'm not sure how it would have gone without that year." Whittaker added the year of preparation allowed the Hatters to build team chemistry. "We're a great family," Whittaker said. "We've been together consistently every day to get ready for this fall, and it gave us a unique opportunity to bond." That new connection even turned former opponents on football fields in Pasco County into close teammates. "Having Keegan and Dylan here has made it a lot better," Whittaker said. "We've done a little trash talking about high school days, but at the same time, being from the same area made it a lot easier adjusting to college." Tanner said they had normal practices during the week "just like every other football team." The only difference was they had scrimmages on Saturdays instead of games. "We were going full speed in our scrimmages," Tanner added. Whittaker said the fan support at the scrimmages made them seem like real games. "We had about 10 scrimmages, and at each there were a couple thousand people watching us," Whittaker said. "Everyone is talking about the football team." Stetson will play Warner University, a first-year NAIA program, at 7 p.m. in the season opener. "I remember first seeing the clock on our web site saying there was like 400 days until our first game, and now it's down to two months," Tanner said. "That clock is gone and it's almost time to play again." Tribune correspondent Kyle LoJacono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Kyle_LoJacono.