For the first time in the four-year history of Orcutt Academy, the unmistakable clatter of football pads crashing against one another blared out this month from the sports fields tucked in the rear of the school’s main campus.


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“People are finally hitting each other,” said Orcutt senior Ricky Nuno, who’s been waiting for football since his freshman year. “It’s a beautiful sound.”

It’s also one that has been years in the making.

After raising the necessary funds – a task that has been mostly a labor of love for the Orcutt Academy administration – the charter school will field its first football team this fall, an 8-man squad that will play an independent schedule. Leading the charge will be first-time head coach Tony Payne, an Orcutt native who was hired a day before the team began its non-contact spring practices. Payne said he’s as excited as anyone to see football at Orcutt’s lone high school.

“This is an absolute dream come true,” Payne said at a recent practice. “I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into this.”

Payne – who was an offensive lineman at Righetti High (class of 1995), Allan Hancock College and West Texas University before assisting with high school teams in central and northern California – won’t be the only person basically learning as he goes this season. The team has about 35 players participating in practices, and the vast majority of them have little to no experience playing high school football.

“I felt a bond with these guys right off the bat,” Payne said. “We’re all doing this together.” Although the team may lack experience, the coach said the same can’t be said for talent or drive. After some time to get adjusted and acclimated to the game and to one another, he said it didn’t take long for those skills to become apparent.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised with the level of athletes that we found when we got here,” he said. “There’s a lot of very good athletes who are incredibly smart and focused and just good kids. They’re all very supportive of each other and are very hard-working. I don’t have to deal with a lot of the stuff that I had to deal with as an assistant coach on other teams.”

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Senior Nate Debruno, who will be lining up at linebacker and running back, said the team has come a long way since those first days together in the spring.

“We kind of looked like a bunch of goofballs at first,” he said, “but now we’ve got down to business and we’re ready.”

In addition to Nuno, who is slated to see time at safety and tailback, and Debruno, other Spartans who will be expected to contribute and provide leadership include senior quarterback Dominic Miller, senior lineman Alec Andoyan and junior linebacker John Welch.

Along with serving as a key benchmark in school and Orcutt history, this year’s team will also lay the foundation for future teams at the school. The players had input in the decals that the team will use on its equipment and they chose the numbers that were ordered for the jerseys.

“They love that kind of stuff, and I don’t blame them,” Payne said of his players. “It’s been like nothing I’ve ever done before.”

There are some differences between 8-man football and the traditional 11-man game. Perhaps most noticeably, aside from the fewer players, is the smaller field, which is 80 yards long and 40 yards wide. The 8-man game also opens itself up for more creativity in play calling. Payne said that he tailored the offensive and defensive playbooks around the available talent and that the offense will be more of a smash-mouth style that will look to utilize its strong line and backfield to rack up yards on the ground.

“It’s different, but the basic principles apply, without a doubt,” Payne said of the 8-man game. “I’m not reinventing the wheel or anything, but there’s a certain amount of using your imagination and trial and error.”

The team will kick off its inaugural season on Saturday, Aug. 25, at Valencia’s Trinity Academy. When they take the field for that first game, Payne said that he’s hoping his players are more focused on the game and remembering assignments than on the historical impact. Still, he said he is fully aware that the game will mark an important moment for many in the Orcutt community.

“I’m from this area,” he said. “I grew up in Orcutt and went to all Orcutt schools. The word is out and people are excited. Orcutt has kind of taken a little ownership of this. We have the word ‘Orcutt’ on our jerseys and a big ‘O’ on our hats. People know that this is just the beginning, so it’s like they’re getting in on the ground floor with us and it’s fun.”

Noting the strong chemistry on the team, the players seem to be in agreement that success isn’t far off. Some are even looking for a CIF run this season. No matter what the end result is, however, they know they are setting the tone for the school’s program for years to come.

“We take a lot of pride in this football program,” Debruno said. “Everyone’s got each other’s back. We came together as a family and there’s probably no other sports team at this school that is as prideful as us.”

willis@syvjournal.com