Carol City and Southridge shook up the status quo in Miami-Dade County last season by ending long state-title droughts.
Championships reigns were extended in Broward as St. Thomas Aquinas won its third in a row, and American Heritage won its third in four seasons.
It was all part of the latest display of power by South Florida teams, which won four titles and had two more teams — Chaminade-Madonna and Champagnat Catholic — reach the state semifinals in Orlando.
Six teams entered this season ranked at the top of their respective classifications, signaling more potential dominance ahead.
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2016: Miami Southridge 14, Orlando Dr. Phillips 10.
The north: After years of coming close, Dr. Phillips finally broke through to the state final for the first time in six years. But title dreams were dashed in a matter of minutes by Southridge, which rallied from a 10-point deficit to take home its first state title since 1993. The Panthers return seven starters and added transfer quarterback BeSean McCray from nearby East Ridge, giving them a good recipe to get back. Apopka is always in the mix and should be again this season, along with Kissimmee Osceola and Bradenton Manatee, which hopes to get back in the championship conversation.
The south: Southridge’s stifling defense graduated a lot of key players but returned several as well. If the Spartans are to hold off the boatload of challengers in South Florida, they will need more consistency from an offense that wasn’t spectacular in 2016 but stepped up in clutch moments. Deerfield Beach couldn’t overcome that Spartans defense in the state semis, but the Bucks return one of the state’s best defenses and might have made all the improvements on offense to supplant Southridge as this year’s Class 8A representative.
2016: St. Thomas Aquinas 45, Tampa Plant 6.
The north: Plant secured a spot in Orlando for the first time in five years and was then dismantled by national juggernaut Aquinas. Should the Panthers get back, a rematch with St. Thomas appears likely. The emergence of dual-threat quarterback Jordan McCloud makes Plant a favorite again. If the Panthers slip up, Bartram Trail could be in line to make a run and so could perennial contender Lakeland.
The south: Aquinas has its sights set on winning a national title and shouldn’t be threatened seriously by any local competition in Class 7A. The Raiders are again loaded at every position, particularly on the defensive side with UM commit Al Blades and FSU commit Asante Samuel leading the way. Venice and Braden River appear to be the most likely obstacles once the Raiders reach the state semifinals. Braden River features a stellar running game led by South Carolina commit Deshaun Fenwick. Venice returns 17 starters. But Aquinas won its five postseason games last year by an average margin of 37.8 points per game.
2016: Carol City 14, Lakeland Lake Gibson 6.
The north: Lake Gibson returns lead rusher T.J. Jones but needs newcomers on defense to step up if it is to return to state. Mainland hasn’t been able to overcome its Miami-Dade County foes in the playoffs and has to replace longtime quarterback Denzel Houston. This could open the door for Seffner Armwood to return to Orlando after a one-year absence. The Hawks have 11 major FBS commits among their senior class.
The south: The survivor among the four powerhouses in District 16-6A should emerge as this classification’s state champion once again. Carol City brought the title home after narrowly defeating Northwestern in the regional semifinals. Central is looking to revive its dynasty. And Norland is trying to show it belongs in the title discussion. But after years of climbing its way back, this could be Northwestern’s chance to reclaim its status as the state’s best.
2016: American Heritage 35, Ponte Vedra 33
The north: Trinity Christian moves into this class and brings with it the longest active championship streak in the state with four in a row. The Conquerors shouldn’t have trouble getting deep into the playoffs before facing a challenge from either Bolles or Tallahassee Rickards. It’s hard to see Trinity slipping up before a potential showdown with American Heritage between reigning state champions.
The south: Led by one of the best defensive backfields in the nation, the Patriots are trying to win back-to-back titles for the second time in five years. If its offense emerges as a threat led by new quarterback Cameron Smith, Heritage should be able to navigate past rival Cardinal Gibbons and make a run to Orlando. Jones, which had an influx of transfers, looms as a potential roadblock in the regional finals. If Heritage survives its early playoff battles, it should be a fun final when it meets Trinity Christian.
2016: Cocoa 31, Jacksonville Bolles 17.
The north: With Bolles moving up to Class 5A, the door appears finally open for longtime contenders such as South Sumter and Raines to make a move. Both appear to have reloaded after coming close in 2016. Perennial Class 1A powerhouse Trenton has also moved into the class and should challenge.
The south: Booker T. Washington had a tough start with its preseason loss to American Heritage but returns plenty of weapons on offense led by UF commit Tyquan Thornton and a stout enough defense led by Jaquan Beaver that could get them back to state. Cocoa ended the Tornadoes’ four-year title run last year. Despite losing a large core of seniors from that team, a potential seventh consecutive clash in the state semifinals with Booker T. Washington is a likely possibility.
2016: Jacksonville Trinity Christian 24, Chaminade-Madonna 13.
The north: Melbourne Central Catholic and Oxbridge both lost to eventual state runner-up Chaminade in last year’s playoffs. This season, neither will have to deal with the Lions unless they reach state. MCC picked up a preseason win over Cardinal Gibbons and showed its firepower on offense. Oxbridge returns 14 starters and has high expectations of reaching state. Figure one of these two to be the one that reaches Orlando from the top half of the bracket.
The south: Chaminade’s ground game powered it to its first state appearance in over a decade. With a full offseason to get acclimated, Lions coach Dameon Jones’ squad is taking on the best of the best in the state in their attempt to win the state title this season. Longtime contender Delray American Heritage has rebounded after a rare losing season and figures to be Chaminade’s biggest playoff obstacle.
2016: Jacksonville University Christian 24, Champagnat Catholic 8
The north: University Christian is looking for a three-peat and appears to have the team capable of pulling it off. The Fightin’ Christians will have to overcome familiar obstacles such as Tallahassee North Florida Christian or Lakeland Victory Christian in the playoffs.
The south: Despite its small size in terms of school enrollment, Champagnat has one of the most talented rosters in South Florida overall. The Lions overcame the odds in the playoffs by taking down contenders such as First Baptist and Northside Christian. Led by numerous FBS commits, including UM pledge Greg Rousseau, Champagnat is likely to return to Orlando and challenge University Christian in a rematch of the 2016 final.
2016: Pahokee 34, Baker 21
The north: Most of the best teams from this half of the bracket such as Trenton, Fort White and Newberry have moved up in class. Perennial favorites Baker and Blountstown remain, however, and both should battle to see who makes it to state.
The south: Pahokee was forced to forfeit its state title because of an ineligible player. But the Blue Devils believe they have the roster to win it again this season. Pahokee returns all but one lineman to block for an offense that’s full of explosive weapons. Madison County is a perennial contender in the region and figures to collide with Pahokee for a trip to state, unless other contenders such as Fort Meade or Mayo Lafayette surprise.
State championship picks
Andre C. Fernandez
Class 8A: Deerfield Beach 20, Dr. Phillips 17
Class 7A: St. Thomas Aquinas 42, Plant 10
Class 6A: Northwestern 27, Armwood 20
Class 5A: American Heritage 30, Trinity Christian 27
Class 4A: Booker T. Washington 34, Raines 14
Class 3A: Chaminade 33, Melbourne Central Catholic 28
Class 2A: Champagnat 24, Jacksonville University Christian 21
Class 1A: Pahokee 38, Blountstown 17
Class 8A: Deerfield Beach 24, Vero Beach 14
Class 7A: St. Thomas Aquinas 38, Bartram Trail 16
Class 6A: Central 36, Armwood 25
Class 5A: Trinity Christian 30, Orlando Jones 23
Class 4A: Booker T. Washington 41, South Sumter 14
Class 3A: Melbourne Central Catholic 28, Chaminade-Madonna 27
Class 2A: Champagnat 14, University Christian 13
Class 1A: Pahokee 34, Blountstown 21