velazquez

Crystal River running back Joel Velazquez, right, runs away from Belleview defender Jahari Baker during a game last season at Crystal River High School. The incoming junior is looking to build on a solid first two varsity seasons for the Pirates.

Monday marked the first day of practice for high school football teams around the state. It’s a fresh start for every team and player in Florida.

For Crystal River junior Joel Velazquez, it’s an opportunity to build off a solid first two seasons. He’s looking to grow on and off the field.

“Just training. Getting in the gym. Doing more footwork stuff. Trying to get stronger and faster,” the Pirate running back and linebacker said. “Just me working harder and trying to get to the end zone more to help my team out and win.”

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Wins have been hard to come by in the past two seasons. The Pirates went 3-4 in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign and 3-7 last season.

Velazquez had a breakout freshman campaign in 2020 with 623 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game for the Pirates.

As a sophomore, Velazquez was more of a focus for opposing defenses and rushed for 659 yards in nine games with seven touchdowns. He added 101 receiving yards and another score after not catching a pass as a freshman. And although his offensive production per game took a bit of a dip, he was much more of a force on defense.

After recording just five tackles and a fumble recovery on defense as a freshman, Velazquez had 61 stops and two fumble recoveries last fall.

Velazquez was an all-Chronicle selection after each season.

Crystal River head coach Cliff Lohrey said Velazquez hasn’t even scratched the surface of how good he can be.

“I don’t think so. I think he still has a ton of gas left in that tank that he doesn’t even know he has,” he said.

And although Lohrey is excited to see what Velazquez will bring to the team on the field, he’s even more impressed with the growth he has seen off the field from the incoming junior.

“I’ve started to see some maturation and some growth. Whether it’s conscious or not conscious, that I can’t answer, but he’s definitely trying to take on more of a leadership role,” Lohrey said. “He realizes that he has influence over his peers, over his teammates. So that’s positive growth that I think is going to show up on the field. It’s shown up off the field already, but I think it’s also going to contribute on the field, not only as an individual, but for us collectively. I feel like he’s really turned the corner and I’m excited to see how he continues to develop.”

Velazquez, who said he hopes to continue his playing career in college and make it to the NFL, said one of the things that stung the most about last season was losing both games to county rivals Citrus and Lecanto. He said those defeats were a wake-up call to the players.

“It kind of put us back together. I feel like we’re all together more and we know that we all need to be together at all times and keep each other’s heads up going into the season and win more games,” he said.

With the way the Pirates like to play – ball control through the running game and tough defense – Velazquez will once again play a key role on both sides of the ball.

“We don’t try to hide what we’re about at Crystal River. We want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides. We want to run the ball, we want to stop the run, play great special teams,” Lohrey said. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be capable of throwing it or don’t want to be productive in the passing game. But certainly, in terms of what we’re made of, what we’re about, we want to run the pig first.”

For Velazquez, his goal on offense to help the Pirates win more games this season is simple.

“Get more touchdown and yards than I did last year,” he said.

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