Cocoa Tigers Ryan Schneider Named Friday Night Locker Room, Space Coast Daily Coach of the Year
By Alan Zlotorzynski, Senior Editor // February 1, 2019
Tigers Coach Does it His way, Silences Critics, returns to state title game
ABOVE VIDEO: The Mike Erdman Toyota 2018 Friday Night Locker Room | Space Coast Daily Players of the Year release show and Super Bowl LIII Preview with Alan Zlotorzynski, Steve Wilson and special guests Viera Hawks Head Coach Derek Smith and Space Coast Vipers Head Coach Matt Diesel.
BREVARD COUNTY • COCOA, FLORIDA – Rarely does an individual replacing a great coach or player have as much successes as their revered predecessor. In some cases, the fan base simply won’t allow it.
There are rare exceptions and the Cocoa Tigers Ryan Schneider is one of them. Schneider’s success in year one taking over for Space Coast Sports Hall of Famer, John Wilkinson, is the reason he has been named the 2018 Friday Night Locker Room-Space Coast Daily Coach of the year.
Schneider’s Tigers returned to the state championship this year but did so with a much different system and with several skill position players that did not suit up for Wilkinson’s Tigers last season.
Doubters and those loyal to coach Wilkinson lined up along the side of SR520 and SR 524 in Cocoa (figuratively speaking of course) ready to pounce if Schneider failed.
Fans questioned whether players would stay as Florida’s liberal transfer policy allows players the right to essentially jump to any school and if we are being honest, there were several programs watching to see if Schneider would be able to keep some of the talent others in the area coveted.
Schneider implemented changes that would surely lead to transfers, the doubters whispered. Not that academics wasn’t a priority for coach Wilkinson but Schneider talked of a more rigorous and closely watched study regiment that he would oversee personally.
Volunteering and working within the Cocoa community and helping those in need also became a priority for Schneider and so did throwing the football.
Under Wilkinson, the Tigers ran the ball nearly 70 percent of the time.
ABOVE VIDEO: Space Coast Daily’s Jordan Rocco spoke with Cocoa Tigers head coach Ryan Schneider prior to the start of the season.
Schneider, a former UCF quarterback who still holds several passing records for the Knights took athletes like Willie Gaines and spread them out forcing defenses to spread out with them and creating space.
The question was, would players like Gaines, who many considered a lock to lead the county in rushing yards this season be willing to split out and go play receiver?
The answer came in a resounding yes from Gaines, who not only lined up to play receiver for Schneider but he lined up in a place receivers with futures dare not go, the slot position.
Gaines didn’t blink an eye and went on to finish fourth in the state with 1,278 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. The Toledo commit also got to run the ball as he also rushed for 422 yards and six more touchdowns.
Schneider not only kept players and got the Tigers to buy into his system but he also found that players from other schools wanted to come and play for him as well.
In-state local area transfers like sophomore QB DJ Arroyo, linebacker Brock Holland, as well as out of state players like WR Isiah Jones and Tyrique Sears, added playmakers and depth to Schneiders plan.
Once Gaines was in, so were the rest of the remaining Tigers and even some of the doubters as Cocoa went onto blow out Palm Bay in week 1.
but the doubters surfaced again and their whispers grew to regular conversation when the Tigers would lose two of their next three games, including a 49-42 shootout to the Viera Hawks.
ABOVE VIDEO: Watch the replay of Ryan Schneider’s biggest win this season as his Tigers defeated the Univesity Sharks to advance to the state championship
The loss was the first ever to the Hawks on the gridiron and it dropped Cocoa’s record to 2-2.
“That’s not a Tigers defense,” or “Why aren’t they running the ball,” and “Ryan Schneider can’t get it done”could be read and heard on social media and in local restaurants and barbershops.
Schneider may be a rookie head coach but he’s a veteran coach and player and used this as a positive to strengthen the ‘family’ mantra he instituted in his locker room.
“This is a process. there are going to be ups and downs and good games and bad ones. The players believe, the coaches believe and that’s all it takes when you have the work ethic and talent we do, it’ll come together,” Schneider said during an interview days after the Viera loss.
Schneider couldn’t have been more right as Cocoa reeled off five straight impressive wins, all against teams that made the playoffs.
Two of those victories came on the road in the ‘muck’ of South Florida, at Glades Central and Pahokee, two places considered as some the toughest in the country to play a football game much less win them both.
However, the doubters returned following a loss to cross-town rivals, the Rockledge Raiders in the regular seasons final game, the Barbecue Bowl. Nevermind that Cocoa lost last year to Rockledge when Schneider was calling plays for MCC, “the Tigers were not playoff ready,” the doubters said.
Cocoa’s opponents during the regular season were 70-44 and on the strength of one of the toughest schedules in program history, the Tigers finished 7-3 and entered the playoffs as the No.1 seed in their region which meant a bye week in round one of the playoffs.
Their point total in the FHSAA second-year playoff system was good enough for second in all of Class 4A, which meant Cocoa would play every game at home until and if they made the state championship game in Orlando.
As the bye week progressed talk amongst fans on message boards continued, “They won’t reach Orlando,” “these weren’t the same Tigers that played for state titles under Wilkinson”
No, these weren’t the same Tigers, they were actually a better-balanced team than this time last year heading into the playoffs and after collecting themselves during the bye week, they rolled past this year’s feel-good local football story in their opening round playoff game.
The Tigers shut out the 10-1 Astronaut War Eagles 35-0, and despite a mistake-filled second half, defeated Bishop Verot, 38-14 in the regional finals.
Still not convinced, many said the end of the road was near as a University Sharks team came to Cocoa looking to avenge their state semifinals loss to the Tigers last year.
University rolled over their first two playoff opponents by a combined score of 85-27 and returned many of the players that were blown out the year before by the Tigers at Dick Blake Stadium. It appeared as if the critics and naysayers would finally be right.
Cocoa led 17-16 at the halftime but a disastrous start to the second half saw the Tigers down by 14 points. The Tigers cut the lead to 31-24 but fumbled on their way into the end zone on their next trip into the red zone.
The turnover looked as though it would be enough to end the Cocoa comeback and allow University to head back to Fort Lauderdale with a win. Looks can be deceiving as Schneider turned to the best player he said he’s ever coached and Willie Gaines came onto play defense.
The move paid off, as Gaines tackled Georgia running back commit Kenny Macintosh in the end zone for a safety to start the fourth quarter and the lead was cut to 31-26. The Tigers defense stood tall and the offense capitalized on the momentum.
The new players combined with the old ones took the lead late and after linebacker Brock Holland forced a fumble that was recovered by guess who, Willie Gaines, Cocoa advanced to their third straight state championship game.
In the championship game, the Tigers had their chances to beat Raines but five turnovers and missed opportunities allowed the Vikings to prevail for a second straight year to win the FHSAA Class 4A title.
However, when you look back on the season, the Cocoa Tigers definitely reached this game in a much different way than they did the year before.
It wasn’t just that Cocoa threw the ball on nearly 70 percent of their plays this season, the Tigers did so with a sophomore quarterback that broke school records and will return to dominate Class 4A next season.
Cocoa still won games with defense at times as Schneider continued the Cocoa tradition of tough physical football. Cocoa forced 28 turnovers in 2018 and registered 26 sacks.
Don’t be surprised if the Tigers are back in Orlando for a fourth straight year next December.
The Tigers return seven offensive and eight defensive starters, including four, starting offensive lineman, as well as sophomore QB D.J. Arroyo, junior RB Caziah Holmes, and freshman tailback OJ Ross.
On defense, Dajavon (DaDa) White will anchor a unit that should dominate many of their opponents up front.
Ryan Schneider is a players coach. He is the first to take the blame for a loss and the first to give credit to his staff and players after a win. Whether or not Schneider silenced the critics for good doesn’t matter.
There will always be fans not happy with some aspect of the program, after all, fan is short for fanatic. Keyboard warriors and barbershop chair football coaches are always going to have a say and that’s just fine with Schneider.
“I love the school, our players, fans and the Cocoa community. They have every right to criticize me when we lose. It only helps me become a better coach, ” Schneider once told me.
While Schneider will never admit it, the fifth verse in the Frank Sinatra classic hit, “My Way” best sums up his first year as Tigers head coach.
“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew, When I bit off more than I could chew, But through it all, when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out, I faced it all and I stood tall……And did it my way”
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