When Mike Sonneborn took over as coach at Dade Christian in 2004 he worried he had “committed career suicide.”
“Our first practice we only had seven guys there,” Sonneborn said Monday. “A lot of kids were discouraged.”
The Crusaders (12-0) aren’t down anymore. Dade Christian — one of eight remaining undefeated teams in the state — will play for the Class 2A state championship Friday afternoon at the Citrus Bowl.
School has been canceled on game day, and Sonneborn said he expects between 800 and 1,400 fans to make the migration north for the 1 p.m. kickoff against Jacksonville University Christian (12-1).
Although the Crusaders’ roster (30 players — many who play offense and defense) isn’t that much bigger than it was in 2004, Sonneborn thinks his team “matches up pretty well athlete for athlete and size for size” against the UC Christians.
But that doesn’t mean Dade Christian will have as many players in uniform as their opponent Friday.
UC coach David Penland, who was a 10-year-old water boy at UC when the school won the last of its six state titles in 1994, has a star-studded roster of 51 players, including six who play both ways.
Quarterback Tim Betros, who orchestrates the team’s shotgun, Wing-T offense, already has experience winning a state title. Before transferring to UC to rejoin his younger brother Trevor this season, Tim ran for 117 yards and a touchdown en route to earning MVP honors for Jacksonville Bolles in its come-from-behind win over Booker T. Washington in last season’s Class 4A title game.
Freshman Hussein Howe (5-9, 160) and seniors Jeremiah Hamlin (6-0, 185) and Chase Moody (5-10, 180) are who Betros hands the ball off to.
“Howe went over 1,000 yards [in the semifinals],” Penland said. “Hamlin rarely goes down on the first tackle and Moody blocks real well for us.”
Defensively, the Christians are led by 6-2, 220-pound end Marquis Haynes.
The North Carolina commitment has 25 sacks and three blocked punts in the playoffs.
• Sonneborn said he has three players — including star receiver Terrence Alls — set for shoulder surgery after the season. Another player will have knee surgery.
Madison County coach Michael Coe said his team will “probably be the biggest underdog in the history of football” when his team faces University School (11-0), ranked fifth nationally by Rivals.com, in the Class 3A title game Saturday.
“Other than Manatee, who I’ve seen a few times on TV, I haven’t seen a team like that,” said Coe, now in his 20th season as coach. “They’re as good as I’ve seen physically, and athletically and they play extremely hard as well.”
The Cowboys, overwhelmed by Delray American Heritage 30-3 in the Class 3A title game last year, aren’t to be taken lightly. Their only loss was a 14-9 defeat to Class 6A No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Gainesville 14-9 at the end of the regular season.
Florida State commitment and starting right guard Ira Denson (6-4, 295) paves the way for star tailback Keyon Bruton (1,253 yards, 16 TDs) in Madison County’s Wing-T attack. Quarterback DJ McKnight (72-140, 1,364 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) throws more than one would expect, too. Defensive end Brandon Crawford (6-1, 235) leads the team with 91 tackles and 12 sacks.
After rallying from 13 points down in the fourth quarter a year ago to beat Booker T. Washington and win the Class 4A title, it’s a surprise to many Bolles and coach Corky Rogers are back to defend their crown.
Aside from only having a handful of starters back, Rogers, who turns 69 on Dec. 19, had heart bypass surgery last offseason. The Bulldogs (12-1) haven’t exactly given his heart a rest, battling a ton of injuries and winning three games in the final minute, including one against nearby Plantation American Heritage 30-27.
But there is talent as usual at Bolles. It’s just young. Junior linebacker Cody Boswell (6-1, 185) and defensive tackle Michael Cassidy (6-2, 265) lead the team in tackles. Offensively, senior running backs Arterrious Mitchell (6-1, 190) and Giancula Heatherley (5-11, 215) team up with sophomore Dexter Carter Jr. (6-0, 175) to lead a dangerous Wing-T rushing attack.