If It's Friday, It's Time For The Dreadnaughts
LAKELAND - There are plenty of things Andy and Angela Mastalski, a couple in their 70s, could do on a Friday night. Supporting Lakeland High's football team is their only desire. "A friend of mine asked, 'How can you sit there on a Friday night and watch football?' I told her, 'I'm addicted to football like you're addicted to bingo,'" Angela said. The Mastalskis are among many Lakeland residents hooked on Florida's most renowned football team, led by Coach Bill Castle, a 36-year sideline veteran named the Florida High School Athletic Association's Coach of The Century.Lakeland has won six state championships since 1986, including three in a row from 2004 to 2006. The Dreadnaughts won 53 consecutive games from 2004 to 2007 and 60 consecutive regular-season games from 1995 to 2001. Their home field features a $400,000 JumboTron, built in 2007, with a 15-by-20 foot video screen, paid for by the booster program. "Everyone is always asking why we are so successful, but really we take it one day at a time and focus on that day and that game," said Castle, 311-75 in 33 years as head coach. "We have huge support from our school and the booster club. We also have a lot of tradition to fall back on in our school that keeps us going." Tradition is why the Mastalskis sat in Bryant Stadium more than two hours before Lakeland's home game against Winter Haven last Friday to hear the band warm up. As their weekly Steak 'n Shake dinner digested, both wore matching orange Dreadnaughts ship hats, construction helmets with Lakeland's mascot woven around it, with battery-powered lights. Andy also loves to display his homemade banner during games: Go Dreadnaughts. Man Your Battle Stations. Full Speed Ahead. "After the players come out, I'll run up and down the sidelines with it," the 77-year-old man said. "OK, I won't run. I'll walk." The Infamous Ship Many people not in their seats before the game strolled to Lakeland High's souvenir stand, which had enough orange jewelry available to start a punk-rock band. In addition to orange earrings, bracelets and rings, there were imposter designer purses with "L" emblems that ranged in price from $20-$35. There also were a wide variety of Lakeland polo shirts, plus camouflage Lakeland baseball caps. As three Hooters girls handed out coupons to their restaurant, Lakeland High's atmosphere hit another level when Freida Haase sat in the bed of a white Chevy Silverado truck and rang Lakeland's infamous Dreadnaught bell on a ship being towed into Bryant Stadium. It is a tradition for Haase to continuously ring the bell from the school to the location of Friday's game as players follow in buses. Haase and Lori, her sister-in-law, not only take turns ringing the bell to Polk County destinations, but also on the interstate during longer road trips. "We've been to Gainesville, Miami and Niceville," Lori Haase said. "When we played in Cincinnati a few years ago, we refused." The ship is so well-known, many opposing schools will not let it on their property. Jerry Follis, who was in charge of the ship for more than 20 years, remembers playing against Brandon last season and being told it had to be removed. Follis said they ended up parking it in the Publix parking lot across State Road 60. "I've been approached by local police officers at different schools and asked to move this stuff off school premises because we were asked not to bring it, but it's part of our school tradition. We can't help it that our mascot is a ship," Follis said. "What's funny to me is, that ship has never made a tackle." Growing Up As Fans Most Lakeland players begin like 12-year-old Christian Alexander. He was one of many children playing football before Lakeland's game. Alexander, a tall sixth-grader at Lawton Chiles Middle School who has Dreadnaught-orange braces, sported a Lakeland T-shirt and baseball cap that was autographed by University of Florida coach Urban Meyer. Alexander, whose introduction to former star running back Chris Rainey a few years ago started his Dreadnaught passion, loves Meyer because he signed seven players from Lakeland's 2007 senior class. "Lakeland is my favorite school," Alexander said. "I play quarterback in youth football, and this is where I want to play when I get into high school." Willie Huntley understands that childhood yearning to play for Lakeland. Huntley began attending Lakeland games in 1982 before becoming a ball boy. He later played linebacker for the Dreadnaughts, graduated in 1990, and spent five years on Florida A&M's football team. Since returning to Lakeland after college, Huntley attends every home or away game that Lakeland plays. He brings his two sons, ages 7 and 9, to the game and is anticipating the day they wear Lakeland uniforms. "It's fun to come out here and see kids play at this particular level knowing that all their life they grew up wanting to play for Lakeland," Huntley said. "Lakeland football is just like the movie 'Friday Night Lights.'" Players Never Forget Roger Mack used to climb the fences around Bryant Stadium and sneak into games as a child. Now the former Dreadnaughts cornerback, who played in 1985 and '86, is one of many former players who stand along the fence in Lakeland's south end zone every week. "One thing about Lakeland High School football, if you played football at Lakeland, you will always support them to the day you die," Mack said. "There is nothing that can compare to what happens on a Friday night in Lakeland. Not even close. "It's like, 'There is a good movie coming out tonight or the Dreadnaughts?' I'm going to watch the Dreadnaughts. My girlfriend has to wait." Although Lakeland's winning tradition might seem to be the logical explanation for the support from former players, Mack said there is a deeper reason. "My dream lives on through these guys," Mack said. "A lot of guys wonder what would have happened if they would have stayed in college and how maybe things in life would have been different. "With these current players, we try to stay behind them. We try to tell them to stay in school and do that schoolwork. You can only do this once. You can't go to school twice. You can only play high school football once, and I tell them to take full advantage of what's right in front of them. I try to keep on them, because my dream lives on through all of them." The dream becomes reality for Lakeland's players as they run through a tunnel of orange Christmas lights and fog before each game. The Haase sisters ring that bell as air horns and cannons drown out the screams from thousands of Dreadnaught fans. Each time Lakeland scores, which can be viewed live or on replay on the JumboTron, the bell is rung for every point. Lakeland defeated Winter Haven, 36-13, meaning the bell probably rang more that evening than the combined number of church bells played that day in Polk County. There are plenty of things to do on a Friday night in Lakeland. For many, watching Lakeland football is the only thing. "This is like one big family. Everybody knows everyone," Andy Mastalski said. "We all love our football team."
Reporter Anwar S. Richardson can be reached at (813) 259-8425 or [email protected]
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