Gulliver coach Earl Sims isn’t expecting to field a roster much larger than 30 players this season.
What his team lacks in volume, it will more than make up for in talent.
Led by a quartet of players currently committed to the University of Miami, Gulliver might have the ingredients to put together its most successful season since its last trip to state in 2008.
Seniors Dionte Mullins, Cedrick Wright and Joseph Jackson, along with junior Robert Burns, have all given their early pledge to attend UM, and will all contribute on both offense and defense for a squad aiming to overthrow Booker T. Washington as the top team in Class 4A.
Booker T. enters the season on a Miami-Dade County-record 41-game winning streak and winners of three consecutive state titles — also a county record shared with Miami Central.
But the Tornadoes lost the bulk of last year’s squad to graduation and transfers, prompting some to wonder if this could be Gulliver’s chance to snap Booker T.’s string of 12 consecutive district championships.
“The district is what it is and we know who’s waiting for us,” Sims said. “It changed a little from last year, but we have veterans this year. We have guys who have been here for a while and they’ve been through it and come out with the same result. They want to change that this time around.”
Mullins (5-11, 165) is a versatile threat who might not leave the field much during games. Gulliver expects him and UCF commit Dontay Mayfield (6-1, 180) to have big seasons in its explosive offense.
Burns (5-11, 210) could emerge as one of the county’s top running backs as he rushed behind a talented line led by senior Ryan Lape.
“We have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a while,” Burns said. “All of us are looking forward to the season.”
Jackson, a 6-5, 235-pound defensive end, is one of the most talented overall athletes in the county. Last year, Jackson earned Miami Herald Class 5A-1A Athlete of the Year honors after a solid football season and a basketball season in which he led Dade in rebounding.
Jackson will anchor a stout defensive line that also includes senior Charles Callender (6-2, 215), a Yale commit.
“My focus is to do the best job I can right now and do whatever it takes to win a state championship,” Jackson said.
Sims is counting on Wright to slow down many top opposing offenses this season in the Raiders’ secondary. Wright (5-9, 170) has totaled 162 tackles, eight sacks and five interceptions over the past two seasons.
Though Gulliver enters the season once again as the likeliest threat to Booker T.’s reign at the top of the district, a new face came out of retirement earlier this year to try and put Monsignor Pace back on the map.
Veteran coach Joe Zaccheo, who guided the Spartans to their lone state crown in 2003, will be back on the sideline and hoping to return Pace to past glory. Zaccheo, who stepped down as coach after the 2006 season, will try to lead the Spartans to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Edison has not made the playoffs since 2005.
With 13 starters returning including eight on offense, however, the Red Raiders will challenge the district’s upper echelon for a playoff spot. Guard Keldrick Cesar figures to be a force up front that will power Edison’s offense.
After three years as an independent, Keys Gate jumps into the district. The Knights went 18-15 over the past three seasons and should be competitive with an explosive offense led by juniors Angelo Gonzalez and Demetrius Mingo.
Broward County’s chances of having a team break through to the postseason got tougher with the addition of Clewiston, a regional finalist last season. Somerset Academy and University School will each vie with the Tigers and Belle Glade Glades Central under the guidance of new coaches.
Kadian Bell, Somerset’s defensive coordinator last year and a former assistant coach on Champagnat Catholic’s state championship team, takes over the Panthers, who made the playoffs for the first time last season before being crushed 70-0 in the first round by Booker T. Washington.
University School brought in longtime assistant coach Daniel Luque in the hopes of reviving its program following a 3-7 season. The Suns were state champions in 2012.
DISTRICT 7-4A, 8-4A OVERVIEW
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Dionte Mullins, Gulliver: Although he is really a threat in every phase of the game, Mullins will be counted on to add explosiveness to an offense with numerous weapons. The University of Miami commit should make the Raiders’ secondary one of the most dangerous to throw against this season as well.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Joseph Jackson, Gulliver: Already chosen as The Miami Herald’s Class 4A-1A Athlete of the Year as a junior, Jackson should be one of the most menacing pass-rushers in the county again this season. If Jackson (6-5, 235) and a talented defense stand tough, the Raiders could make a deep playoff push for the first time since 2008, when they last made it to state.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
7-4A: 1. Belle Glade Glades Central; 2. Clewiston; 3. Somerset; 4. University School.
8-4A: 1. Booker T. Washington; 2. Gulliver; 3. Edison; 4. Monsignor Pace; 5. Keys Gate.
7-4A: Sept. 18: University at Somerset; Oct. 2: Glades Central at Somerset; Clewiston at University School; Oct. 16: Somerset at Clewiston; University School at Glades Central.
8-4A: Aug. 28: Booker T. at St. Thomas Aquinas; Sept. 18: Monsignor Pace at Gulliver; Sept. 26: Booker T. vs. Central (Traz); Oct. 2: Edison at Gulliver; Oct. 10: Booker T. vs. Northwestern (Traz); Oct. 15: Gulliver vs. Booker T. (Traz).