ORLANDO -- Alex Montgomery didn’t make the first impression he wanted when he signed up for Mark Guandolo’s fourth-period weight-training class three years ago at Cypress Bay High.
“I showed up wearing red shorts, and I didn’t know they were supposed to be blue or gray,” said Montgomery, now a hulking 6-2, 210-pound senior receiver/safety who wears the Lightning’s royal blue, gold and silver colors proudly.
“He made me do 100 up-downs right off the bat. I knew high school was going to be a long ride after that.”
It has been a long, bumpy road for all 26 seniors on Cypress Bay’s football team, filled with plenty of moments when they got chewed out by their coach. But with a win over Apopka (12-2) in their final high school game Saturday night at the Citrus Bowl, all of the tough love will have been worth it, especially in the eyes of Cypress Bay’s most dynamic two-way player.
“You’ll never have a coach that loves you so hard and is so hard on you at the same time,” Montgomery said. “He makes a man out of you.
“He’s the type of coach that tries to get in your head. Some kids can handle it, some kids can’t. My first year he got me a few times. I didn’t get it. His whole goal is to make you mad so you play better, expect more of yourself. I had to grow out of that stage, mature.”
What Guandolo has pushed out of Montgomery the past few weeks has been key to the Lightning’s playoff run. In addition to getting more out of him at receiver — Montgomery has 15 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns in four playoff games compared with 18 catches for 442 yards and two TDs in 10 regular-season games — Guandolo actually has gotten Montgomery to embrace defense and make big plays there, too.
Last week, in the state semifinal victory against Columbus, Montgomery returned an interception 34 yards for a score. A week before that in the regional final win at Seminole Ridge, Montgomery sealed a come-from-behind win with a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“We have a lot of talented kids, and we see talented kids every week, but I’ve yet to see a player on the field that Alex has been on that’s a better athlete,” said defensive coordinator Doug Dutton, who has had Montgomery line up at middle linebacker, safety and even defensive end after Guandolo gave him the green light to play him more on defense after the Lightning’s last loss at Bradenton Manatee on Oct. 12.
“There are faster kids and bigger kids, but I’ve never seen a kid do the number of things he does at the level he does. He’s a unique talent.”
Dutton is hoping that Montgomery and a couple of other offensive linemen who have also begun playing defense since the loss at Manatee will help slow down a potent Apopka offense that is averaging 42.4 points per game.
“They can line up in Single Wing and run the ball over you and line up in spread and throw it around,” Dutton said of the Blue Darters, who are led by quarterback Zac Darlington (83 for 125, 1,487 yards, 17 TDs, 5 INTs passing; 583 yards rushing, 9 TDs). “It’s hard to differentiate between Manatee, St. Thomas and these guys in terms of talent. We’ve got our hands full.”
Said Guandolo: “Apopka doesn’t have many weaknesses. We’re going to need Alex’s big-play potential.”
Montgomery, who has a 2.8 GPA and scored a 1,310 on his SAT, has offers from North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Kentucky, Mississippi, Marshall, UCF, Rutgers and Louisville. All of them want him at receiver, he said. But Georgia recently reached out to him and asked him if he would be willing to play defense.
“I told [Georgia] I love playing offense and that stands as it is,” Montgomery said. “Some people think I’d be a better safety. Some people think I’d be a better receiver.”
But what Montgomery said he really wants to be right now “is a state champion.”
“I know everybody felt great on Saturday night, but I want to feel that same feeling this week,” he said. “I don’t want to come home disappointed. Winning the semifinal was a little milestone; winning it all would be better.”