The Rise of the Red: The story behind the transformation of Williston's football team
The Williston Middle High School Red Devils football team went 1-8 in the 2021 football season. They also averaged about 30 fans a game, defensive end Reyce Knauff sarcastically mentioned.
“Nobody was hype last year. Everyone was drowsy before the games,” senior offensive lineman Wyatt Woodford said.
In the 2022 season, everything changed. Williston hired a new coach in Robby Pruitt, added transfers and brought a community together. And they red-deviled the playing field, boasting a 10-0 regular season with crowds totaling more than 1,000. The highlights of the season arguably came in a road win against rival Chiefland and a playoff berth.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game. We were hit with adversity for the first time in the year, so we didn't know how to handle it at first," Williston running back Kyree Edwards said. "We just had to shut 'em down, calm down and play ball."
This fall everyone was pumped-up as the Red Devils ran onto the field into the flames. Leading that spawn is Robby Pruitt, who at age 60, also reignited his own career. Pruitt got his start with Union County back in 1993. He won seven state championships and became the youngest coach to ever be inducted into the Florida State High School Association Hall of Fame. In 2000, he moved on to coach in Georgia for the pension, not to mention a higher salary.
Heading into the 2022 season, Pruitt needed just one more year to qualify for a pension in Florida. The opportunity to be close to family like his parents, brother and youngest son helped seal the deal. The Gainesville native quickly came to love Williston.
“It’s the way they get behind the kids,” Pruitt said. “There’s no substitute for it, for a community.”
Pruitt has spent most of his career in what he described as one-horse towns, where the football team is the fabric of the community. Everyone supports the team.
“They’ve just jumped in with both feet to really support the kids and the program,” Pruitt said.
Players joked that in 2021 it was just parents in the crowd, and not even all of the parents came out. This year, the crowd left an immediate impression on Pruitt. The first game got postponed due to lightning. But when Pruitt came onto the field for 10 minutes, he was blown away.
“The stands were just packed and (parents) were ready to see their kids,” he said. “It was raining, it was lightning and they were still in the stands.”
This year, the town funded a new locker room and weight room, while maintaining the fields. They even fed the players dinner, including after Tuesday practices.
“People on the street give you clothes off their back if you need them,” running back and outside linebacker transfer Jace McDonald said.
He transferred from Wildwood Middle High School because he liked how Pruitt coaches a run-heavy offense and the defensive coordinator’s schemes. McDonald was far from the only transfer. Running back Kyree Edwards transferred from Gainesville High School - a school so depleted by players transferring away that freshman and sophomores made up about half of its varsity roster, according to high school sports stats and coverage website MaxPreps. The GHS Hurricanes went 0-10 this season compared to their 8-3 finish in 2021. In 2022, Edwards once again led his team in rushing. He posted 1,718 yards.
“Always stay forward. Always work. Always, whatever you do, make sure you’re doing it 100 mph,” Edwards said Pruitt tells him.
Many would attribute some of Williston’s accelerated growth to the transfer portal. The FHSAA allows transfers to play immediately, as long as the athlete is enrolled in the high school they want to play for at the beginning of the school year. Pruitt doesn’t deny it helped the Red Devils to pick up some transfers, but said the kids came to Williston on their own.
“I don't think any other coach in the area is gonna tell the kids who come to them and want to play, ‘No they’re not welcome,'” Pruitt said.
Georgia did not have the minimally restricted transfer portal, and it surely wasn’t alive back when he coached at Union County.
“It’s kinda the Wild West here in Florida,” Pruitt said, “It’s the way the world is.”
But regardless of the transfer portal, wide receivers coach Lamar Waters said Pruitt always succeeds. Waters coached with Pruitt at Union County about 20 years ago. He decided to leave Bradford County after receiving a call from the Hall of Famer last October.
“He’s always been Big Rob,” Water said. “I credit him for a lot. He led me to the Lord and he’s always been about the details.”
They say the devil’s in the details. Pruitt’s competitiveness has helped transform teams wherever he goes. Before Pruitt took over at Union County, the school had not been to the playoffs for 17 years. In his first year, Pruitt led the team to the playoffs and went on to win three straight State Championships.
When he crossed the Florida-Georgia line, Pruitt inherited a Fitzgerald High School team with about 10 straight losing seasons. In his first year, the Purple Hurricanes made it to the State Championship. Water said Pruitt’s magic is simple. He outworks people.
“I’ve never coached with anybody who does it the way he does it, and he hires good people,” Waters said.
While the crowd cheers loudly for players like McDonald and Edwards during the game, the coaches can’t hear the roar because they’re wearing headsets. Sometimes there can be a lot of chatter on headset during a game as the coaches emotions kick in - anger, excitement, even panic.
“Not on this one,” Waters said. “It’s very calm, very relaxed.”
He believes this is because the coaching staff has so much experience. For example, assistant coach Kelly Scott used to be the head coach at Weber International University. Plus, the staff members know each other well from all the years they’ve spent together at various schools. The administration has played a role too. Waters said the players have block classes so they’re able to lift or watch film five days a week.
Junior Woodford, a Williston native, has noticed new attitudes since Pruitt arrived. "There’s more self-discipline. No one’s joking around in the weight room. Instead, everyone is determined and focused," said Woodford.
“You’re either gonna get on board or you’re gonna get gone,” Waters said. “If you don’t do it his way, you’re not gonna last.”
Pruitt remained impressed with his players' work ethic, from summer to fall practice to conditioning going into spring camp. “We try to get them to understand that you’ve got to have hard work and you have to have discipline,” Pruitt said. “Without those things, you don’t have a chance.”
At the same time, the players know Pruitt is there for them and will do anything for them. “Pruitt teaches us to become a better man,” Edwards said.
For now, Pruitt will look to come back with more fire in the 2023 season after the Red Devil’s first round 46-35 playoff loss versus Wildwood. He knew all along six months wasn’t enough time to truly get strong. His main goal for spring training is getting stronger. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long ways in a short time,” Pruitt said.