Coach Telly Lockette loaded the front-end of Miami Central’s schedule with nationally ranked powers this season not only because he wanted to see how his younger players would respond in tough environments, but also because he wanted them to grow up fast.
The Rockets have one more major hurdle left if they’re going to call themselves the Class 6A state champions. Unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Gainesville (14-0) will be waiting for them at the Citrus Bowl Saturday afternoon — and the Purple Hurricanes, ranked 25th in the Rivals.com Top 100 poll, are pretty well-tested themselves.
Among those beaten by the Purple Hurricanes: defending 6A state champion Seffner Armwood (who later vacated the 2011 title); 6A regional finalist Lake City Columbia (11-2); 3A state runner-up Madison County (12-2); and 4A state semifinalist Yulee, led by the state’s 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year and national rushing leader Derrick Henry.
Gainesville second-year coach John Thomson said Central’s star tailbacks, Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby, remind him a lot of Henry, who ran for 336 yards and three TDs against Gainesville in a 51-28 loss.
Like Central, Gainesville boasts a talented two-headed attack in its backfield led by 5-10, 190-pound senior Raphael Webb (1,832 yards, 26 TDs) and 5-10, 163-pound junior Tony James (1,037 yards, eight TDs). The Purple Hurricanes, averaging 41.1 points per game, also have a dependable quarterback in 6-1, 195-pound senior Mark Cato (2,129 yards, 26 TDs, eight INTs) and a fleet of dangerous receivers, led by University of Florida commitment and two-way star Chris Thompson.
Defensively, Gainesville is giving up just 12.5 points per game under Thomson, who figures to have plenty of support in the stands Saturday not only because Gainesville is a short drive from the Citrus Bowl but because of his family who still resides in Orlando. Thomson is a former quarterback at Orlando Dr. Phillips High, who began coaching in 2004 and was in charge of quarterbacks and receivers at Orlando Edgewater when the Eagles lost to Miami Killian in the 6A title game.
Although it has been 11 years, Lincoln coach Yusuf Shakir hasn’t forgotten what it was like the night the Trojans beat Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas to win the school’s first state championship. Shakir was fresh out of college and just a 23-year old assistant then.
Now in his fourth season as coach, Shakir hopes to lead Lincoln’s 21 seniors to their second state title in three years Friday night against the Raiders, who shocked nationally No. 1-ranked Bradenton Manatee to reach the 7A title game.
“I wasn’t shocked,” Shakir said Monday. “I knew it was going to be a great game, and it didn’t surprise me if Aquinas won. They’ve got some of the best players in the country on that team.”
Lincoln (12-1) also has some excellent players on its roster. Its only loss came to 5A state finalist Tallahassee Godby 40-28 on the final week of the regular season. The Trojans are led on defense by University of Florida-bound middle linebacker James Hearns (6-4, 235), highly touted junior cornerback Kendall Randolph (5-11, 175) and do-it-all safety Jamerson Blount (6-1, 175). The Trojans forced six turnovers in their state semifinal win and are plus-22 in the turnover category.
Offensively, former UF star and Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Jacquez Green calls the shots for a unit that averaged 35.7 points a game this season, mostly behind the running of 5-10, 175-pound senior Ben Robinson (1,328 yards, 20 TDs). Georgia commitment Reggie Davis (6-0, 160) is one of three talented receivers.
When trainers told him his son’s leg was broken in the second week of the season, Apopka coach Rick Darlington figured his team’s season was finished.
Those trainers turned out to be wrong and everyone in the Blue Darters’ path has paid the price since talented junior quarterback Zack Darlington (6-0, 195) has been back under center.
Apopka (12-2) enters Saturday night’s Class 8A state championship riding an 11-game winning streak and scoring just about at will (42.4 points per game). Despite starting nearly as many seniors (eight) as they do sophomores (seven) and without many blue-chip prospects, the Blue Darters rolled No. 1-ranked Orlando Dr. Phillips last week 38-19.
Rick Darlington, who led Apopka to its only state title in 2001 with a win over Miami Northwestern, said his team’s offensive line led by 6-3, 288-pound center Dazzie Morris has “made us go all year.”
Although Apopka averages nearly 6-3 and 260 pounds along its front line, the real star of the offense is tailback Jervic Blocker, known as “garden gnome.” The 5-5, 142-pound senior, a backup cornerback last season, has run for 1,617 yards and 23 TDs and leads the team with 23 catches for 335 yards and four TDs.
“I think most people just can’t see him,” Darlington said in jest. “He’s got no offers except the one we gave him — a seat on the bus Saturday.”