ORLANDO -- Wesley Smith walked around the Citrus Bowl on Saturday afternoon carrying a sledgehammer as his University School teammates celebrated their first state championship in school history.
“It’s been a sign of strength and unity for us all season,” Smith, a 5-11, 180-pound strong safety said. “We’re a family.”
Two years after seeing his football family fall a yard short of a state title, Smith made sure Madison County receiver Neal Brown fell a yard short of taking another one away from the Suns. As Brown reeled in a pass at the Suns 11-yard line on 4th-and-17, Smith launched his body at the 5-11, 165-pound receiver. The mid-air, high-speed collision impeded Brown’s forward progress.
The Cowboys, hoping to rally from a 24-17 deficit with a minute to play in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game, picked up only 16 yards on the play.
“I had a lot of anger built up from losing two years ago,” said Smith, who after missing the 2010 title game with a torn ACL produced a season-high 11 tackles Saturday (a third of his season total). “When I saw he didn’t get the first down I didn’t know what to say, what to think. I couldn’t get up from the ground I was so happy. I knew we had it in the bag.”
The Suns (12-0) had a star-studded roster filled with top-flight recruits this season. But on Saturday, it was the lower-profile kids such as Smith, linebacker Cody Schooley and receiver Emanuel Soto who stepped up and provided some of the biggest lifts in the Suns’ come-from-behind victory.
Soto, who was a star and the leading receiver at Archbishop McCarthy a year ago, stepped up when leading receiver Jordan Cunningham left Saturday’s game with a sprained MCL. Soto, the team’s third-leading receiver this season, caught a season-high five passes for 81 yards, including the 11-yard game-winner with 5:54 to play from quarterback Mike White.
Schooley, though, might have provided the biggest lift of all according to teammates. The 6-foot, 230-pound senior, unlisted on recruiting websites, delivered an inspiring speech at halftime and chipped in with six tackles.
“The biggest adjustment we made was our attitude,” said senior linebacker Skai Moore, who led the Suns with 14 tackles including a pair of big ones late in the game. “Cody was the one in there yelling, telling us to pick it up. He said, ‘We’ve got 24 minutes left together before we go on our separate ways for the rest of our lives.’ It got us going.”
Said Suns coach Roger Harriott: “Cody is an extraordinary person. When he talks, people listen. He can move a crowd. He’s going to do some remarkable things later in life.”
Things couldn’t have started worse for the Suns. University trailed 17-0 and got more bad news when Cunningham injured his knee making a 25-yard catch and run with less than four minutes to play in the first half. Facing a second-and-20 from the Madison County 35-yard line moments later, Soto came to the rescue. He made a diving 22-yard catch at the 13-yard line. The Suns settled for a field goal four plays later, but suddenly had some momentum.
After Moore and Schooley combined to hold Madison County to a three-and-out on its next possession with tackles, Soto made a leaping 31-yard catch down the sideline to help setup White’s 15-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Taylor with 10 seconds before the half.
Harriott, who will probably have more than a dozen seniors sign with Division I schools, said in his eyes he has a roster full of superstars. Some of them, he said, just finally got a chance to shine.
“Sometimes guys can get lost in the shuffle, don’t get the recognition guys like Jordan [Cunningham], [Jordan Scarlett], [Maquedius Bain], Mike [White] and Skai [Moore] get,” Harriott said. “We have an extraordinary team that is extremely selfless.
“In the end, what I’m going to remember is the love and commitment our kids displayed. They’re the epitome of what it means to be a team.”