Enthusiasm running high with Melbourne football

The move seemed a little strange, but comfortable, both to new Melbourne High Bulldogs head football coach Tony Rowell and to the man who hired him.

“We went to school together,’’ Melbourne Athletic Director Darrell Buchanan said.

“I’m an ’86 graduate, he’s an ’87 graduate. I didn’t play football, but he played basketball with me. So that’s 35 years now of us knowing each other. All of his kids went to Melbourne, his wife went to Melbourne.”

Being friends helped but ultimately it was Rowell’s dedication to the program, and his family history, that has led him back here, despite having several businesses that he also runs.

The Rowell family tradition at Melbourne High continues.

Tanner Rowell, a former Melbourne player, was a walk-on at Florida who was given a scholarship with the Gators in early August. Gavin Rowell is the youngest of Tony’s kids to play high school football at Melbourne.

“His heart is with the school,’’ Buchanan said of coach Rowell. “So that is a big deal. It solved our issue of finding someone. He was on our search committee. Kevin Mays was our choice and he decided on another job, so Tony decided I’m going to put my name in on this. It’s worked out good.’’

More than 80 players showed up for fall workouts and Rowell said he was pleased with the enthusiasm right away. A stack of new equipment rests on the floor of the locker room, necessitated by the huge turnout.

Running back Tony Wright was a 1,000-yard rusher last season and should develop into a big recruit.

“He’s a little thin but he’s getting there,’’ Rowell said of the 155-pound Wright. “We’ve got a bunch of great athletes. We’ve just got to get the ball in their hands.”

The season opened with a preseason 36-31 loss at Merritt Island. Rowell has promised a wide-open offense and didn’t disappoint with 65- and 70-yard touchdown passes by quarterback Justin Popovich.

Joe Cohen, a former NFL defensive lineman from the University of Florida and Palm Bay High, works with Gavin Rowell on defense.

“(Cohen) is a good man, a great friend of mine,’’ Rowell said. “My older two sons played here so I had been around the program 7-8 years in a row so it isn’t that weird being back. I just wanted to give back to the school that obviously made me.’’

Rowell was a senior star on Steve Spurrier’s first two teams at Florida before playing 2 ½ seasons in the NFL. He was drafted by the Raiders in the sixth round in 1992 and also played for the Miami Dolphins.

He knows that a successful program requires a quality coaching staff.

“We hope to grow in the number of coaches,’’ he said.

Jon Turner, a former Melbourne High School wide receiver, was a quick hire as offensive coordinator from the junior high level.

“He played at Valdosta State and Jacksonville,’’ Rowell said. “He was one of my first calls. His name kept popping up. You’re going to hear a lot about him in the next couple of years.’’

In Rowell’s mind, defense is the strength of the team.

“Overall that’s our most experienced and we’ve got Joe Cohen,’’ he said.

Another staff hire was Jerry Freese, a former star linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs who played at Arkansas.

The first test against Merritt Island left Rowell hopeful. “We did a good job on offense,’’ he said. “The thing is we played with four freshmen starting. Jalen Clarke had a 70-yard touchdown catch, Kody Black had a good game at center.’’

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