After surviving a three-way district tiebreaker to earn their first playoff berth since 2008, the Fort Lauderdale Dillard Panthers were one quarter away from knocking off defending state champion Miami Norland in the opening round of the playoffs before it all slipped away last November.
In previous years, it might have been the kind of loss to divide a team. But it didn’t.
“I think we got even more committed,” second-year coach Lorenzo Davis said.
“One day this summer it was pouring rain, the parking lot was flooded six inches deep and I pulled up at our school for a 9 a.m. workout about half an hour late. Two cars were in the parking lot. But when I walked into our gym there were 52 kids busting their behinds, trying to get better. That showed me these guys really are committed.
“We probably have 85 kids out here right now. Last year at this time we probably had 60.”
Despite losing do-it-all star running back Dre’Sean Nelson (Bethune-Cookman) and about half the team’s starters to graduation after a 5-6 season, expectations are high this season for the Panthers, who are hoping for their first playoff win in five years.
Standout receiver Dennis Turner, recruited to the University of Miami to play defensive back, is back along with starting quarterback Bud Martin (6-1, 210 pounds), who has been invited to play in the NUC All-American game in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in December.
“Ever since we met, we’ve clicked,” said Martin, who has offers from a handful of small schools, but also has Syracuse showing interest. “... We got that quarterback-receiver thing going.’’
Only one returning starter on the offensive line is back: guard Collins Premier (6-1, 285). Davis said seniors Eddie Roberts (5-7, 190) and Christian Bouie (5-7, 165), Nelson’s backups a year ago, will split the carries.
“We’ll never replace Dre’Sean Nelson — he did everything for us, returned kicks, ran the ball, but our depth is a lot better,” Davis said.
Defensively is where the Panthers could have the most talent.
Safety Randy Ramsey (6-3, 205) has offers from several Football Bowl Subdivision programs and will likely play some at outside linebacker and rush end, Davis said. Senior Arthur Kennedy, a standout basketball player, has rejoined the football team after playing as a freshman and will also run after the quarterback.
The most talented player on defense could be 6-3, 255-pound sophomore defensive tackle Aaron Thompson, whom Davis said Florida State, Florida and other FBS programs are already showing interest in. Thompson had six sacks last year as a freshman.
As for the schedule, Davis has set up a road trip to Dallas to take on Texas’ defending Class 3A state champion Stephenville in a 1 p.m. kickoff Sept. 14. It’s a marquee game Davis believes will continue to help Dillard, a two-time state champion, get back on the map.
“Before [Davis] got here, we had never made the playoffs,” Turner said. “Coach has brought a whole new vibe, life to the team. We didn’t believe. Now we actually believe.”