LAND O’ LAKES — Academy at the Lakes junior quarterback Max Stepanets can call an audible in Russian.
It helps he’s a native of the other St. Petersburg. And it helps the 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior quarterback and exchange student for the Wildcats 7-on-7 football team, which plays in the state semifinal in Gainesville today against Cornerstone Academy, has developed from a raw football player with no experience to one of the team’s best.
“I’ve never had a Russian quarterback before,” Academy coach John Castelamare said with a laugh. “We had another Russian player before and they would call audibles in Russian, so that was an advantage, but he’s gotten stronger and developed into a quarterback that can throw and run now. He knows when to throw and when to run and its been perfect for us this year.”
Stepanets, who also plays defensive end as only one of 12 of the Wildcats’ “Dirty Dozen” players, came to this country when he was 7, while he and his brother, seventh-grader Tioma, live with another Russian exchange student with a guardian provided by Academy (7-2). Stepanets says he goes home to Russia every summer, but also Skypes with his mother about once a week. Never playing football in his homeland, Stepanets played soccer before falling in love with football.
“I loved how it’s tough and also being able to hit another,” Stepanets said with just the slightest Russian accent. “Being able to play football over here has been a great opportunity and I have no regrets about it.”
Castelamare says Stepanets has come a long way because not only has he sprouted from only being 5-foot-8, but also stuck to a regimented weight program and worked hard on his footwork. It has resulted in 417 passing yards and 806 rushing yards, and the “Dirty Dozen” looks to make the state title game next weekend at Lakeland High.
“We have just 12 kids and seven of them are seniors,” Castelamare said. “But we feel that what we put on the field is pretty good.”
In two playoff games, the Wildcats have outscored opponents 104-32, however, tonight’s opponent, the Cougars, are 10-0 and have outscored their playoff opponents 118-30. So, Stepanets knows the matchup will be evenly matched.
Something understands in either language now.
“The first few years here were tough, but playing sports has always helped,” Stepanets said. “It’s going to be a tough game (tonight), but the camaraderie on the team, when you only have 12 men, is going to be close and the hard work on the field will determine the winner.”
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.