Manny Navarro: Booker T.-Central matchup shows local football makes big impression nationally

Head coach Ice Harris, of Booker T. Washington, greets Miami Central players after Booker T.'s win at Traz Powell Stadium in Miami, Friday, September 6th, 2013.
Head coach Ice Harris, of Booker T. Washington, greets Miami Central players after Booker T.'s win at Traz Powell Stadium in Miami, Friday, September 6th, 2013.
Peter Andrew Bosch / Miami Herald staff

This didn’t have the intensity of Soul Bowl II in the Orange Bowl with Miami Jackson and Miami Northwestern fighting tooth and nail in front of 44,000 fans to get to the state title game.

It didn’t have the hatred or fire of Miami-Dade neighborhood rivalries such as Palmetto-Killian, Homestead-South Dade or Central-Northwestern.

But Central and Booker T. Washington still put on a special show for a packed house of 7,500 at Traz Powell Stadium on Friday night. Two nationally-ranked No. 1 teams in our backyard — first time ever — lived up to their billing, playing four exciting quarters before the Tornadoes earned their revenge.

Terry Jefferson, a straight-A student not listed on any recruiting lists or coveted by the likes of Miami, Florida or Florida State, made the biggest play of the game. With the crowd standing on its feet and the Rockets trying to mount a comeback at midfield, he caught a deflected pass and zig-zagged across the field 75 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute remaining, icing Booker T.’s 28-17 victory.

“I had to rip their hearts out,” Jefferson said with a grin on his face. “We weren’t letting this slip away like the last three years.”

For Booker T. Washington coach Tim “Ice” Harris, Friday’s win meant a lot. National titles aren’t easy to win. But now his team has the inside track, a path to the kind of accomplishment schools in South Florida used to only dream about.

High school football has changed. It’s no longer about just being the best team in your neighborhood. Harris was wearing an orange cap with the word “Respect” across it. Booker T. earned Central’s, becoming the first team in Dade to beat them since 2008.

But it’s the respect of the nation Harris and other local coaches long before him have coveted, and are only beginning to receive in the past decade.

That’s why former Southridge and Miami Hurricanes assistant coach Don Soldinger came out to congratulate both coaches Friday.

Soldinger was a trailblazer of sorts. His 1994 Spartans team, led by Darrin Davis and Troy Davis, was the first Miami-Dade County team since Nick Kotys’ Coral Gables 1960s squads to earn a national No. 1 ranking. Southridge squandered its chance at a mythical national crown, losing in the state final.

Northwestern, the team Smith built, finally broke through and won Dade’s first national title in decades 13 years later with Jacory Harris at quarterback. The fact two Dade teams were ranked No. 1 at the same time is why Soldinger felt the need to join the throng of hundreds of VIPs watching on the sideline.

“That’s one of the reasons I came out here — to congratulate both of them,” said Soldinger, who met with former Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee on Central’s sideline. “These teams are good. This Central team has been in the state finals three years in a row. Booker T. is amazing. Tim Harris, I told him, ‘not only is your team good, but they’re so well-coached.’ ”

And that’s the kind of respect Harris, Central coach Roland Smith and other local coaches yearn for nationally. There has been a belief Miami-Dade coaches have won in the past because of the type of athletes they have — the kind college football’s elite come flocking here to get in droves. Not because of coaching.

By seeing two Dade teams ranked high in the national polls again this year — and blowing out teams in Georgia, Texas and other states over the past few years — the opinion has been changing, Smith said.

“I finally feel like we’re getting the respect we deserve,” said Smith, who took over Central after former longtime assistant Telly Lockette left following two state championships to take a job at the University of South Florida. “A lot of times they thought we just had athletes who would throw the ball out there and just play. But now they see us on film, see the things we’re doing, seeing that kids are well educated and they know the game and they’re able to make that transition.”

What Soldinger said he would like to see next are the facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties improve.

“I was in Hoover, Ala. I saw a gym that was unbelievable, state-of-the-art stuff for the high school guys,” Soldinger said. “Our guys are just chomping at the bit to get out of their situations and go to college. Give our guys those type of facilities, there is no telling what these guys would do and be like.”

But the job Harris, Smith and others are doing so far isn’t too shabby.

It’s nice to see Miami-Dade County finally getting its respect.

Read more Miami-Dade High Schools stories from the Miami Herald

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