By Larry Gage
Special to the PRESS
He was only here for two years, but if any football coach that Port Isabel High has ever had put the program back on the path to playoff contention it is Jason Strunk.
He arrived in Port Isabel with his family that summer of 2018, weeks after the school year had come to an end. Now this is easy to say when the new gun in town moves into his office and starts preparing for his first season at the helm. But he made an immediate impression on this football reporter, and I knew he meant business.
He said to me, in so many words: “My goal is not just to get P.I. back into the playoffs. I came here to win state championships and that’s what I aim to do.”
A coach doesn’t normally start his new job with such bold statements, but I came away from that first meeting with a feeling of optimism about the prospects of Tarpon football. Port Isabel went 2-7 the season prior to Strunk’s arrival and hadn’t won a playoff game since reaching the regional semi-finals in 2013. One thing was clear – this guy meant business.
Weight room workouts are telling and from the beginning the players were introduced to a kind of regimentation and degree of difficulty with their workouts that I had never seen before. The coaches believed and they got the players to believe. But the start of the season was just a few weeks away, and the new coach, through no fault of his own, was getting a very late start.
The Tarpons went 2-3 in non-district play, losing close games against Porter and La Feria. In district they won big against Grulla and Progreso and lost big against Raymondville and Rio Hondo.
There followed one of the highest scoring and most exciting games in program history: a bi-district playoff game against Corpus Christi West Oso in Mercedes. The touchdowns came thick and fast and there were almost too many lead changes to count. In the end, the Tarpons lost on a missed field goal with seconds left to play, and ended the season at 4-6 overall.
The 2019 season seemed to be a step backwards, at least by the team’s record. The Tarpons went 3-7, 1-3 in district, and lost in bi-district to Sinton, 50-30.
A number of injuries took their toll. A 7-13 record may not look like progress, but the foundation was laid, and the buzz word was optimism.
So now the school is looking to hire a new coach for the third time in four years. Whoever it is, they will take over a program that is more than ready to start anew.
Strunk knew that it was time for a change.
He has been hired as the athletic director at Manheim Township High School in his home state of Pennsylvania. He will be the AD at his new school, but he will leave coaching behind.
“I’ve coached for 25 years but at this time it’s not worth it anymore to continue coaching,” Strunk told the PRESS. “Now we can see our son (Mac) run at The Citadel. (My wife) Tracy can get back to her health network for her heart. Tough decision but it’s family based.”
There’s more involved than just taking a job in athletics at a new school, as it turns out.
“I’m getting my Masters Degree from Clemson University,” Strunk said. “I have a year left in the Athletic Leadership program. This was always going to be my path. Things happened and (we) decided this was the perfect time to do it.”
So, what is the current state of the program? It isn’t just about the Varsity team playing on Friday nights. A good program is strong from the bottom up. Players start playing organized football at the junior high level, and these young players go on to play at the high school freshman and Junior Varsity levels. They grow and learn the game, year by year, before they can suit up and play under those “Friday Night Lights.”
The Tarpon freshmen team went 9-0 this past season and, “Four or five sophomores played Varsity,” Coach Strunk said.
“The off season is set up. Coach (Johnathan) Bodden has done a great job. They’re pointed in the right direction, 100 percent.”
There is no doubt that Coach Strunk has given everything he had, everything he’s learned, to this program. And it is not easy to leave it behind.
“It’s never easy to say goodbye. I love the kids here – they’re awesome. We’ve built relationships here and we know the impact we have had here. This (COVID-19) pandemic made it tougher because I couldn’t say goodbye in person.”
A definite departure date for the Strunk family has not yet been set. Developments, as they happen, with the coronavirus situation will be key to their plans.