Miami Central felt confident this could be the year it could win that elusive national championship.
Saturday afternoon’s performance proved otherwise.
The Rockets, winners of three consecutive Class 6A state titles and four in the past five seasons, were stymied on offense and its defense was overwhelmed in the second half on route to an embarrassing 38-14 loss to Maryland powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in a nationally-televised game at Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in Landover, Maryland.
"Obviously, we don’t like this feeling at all," Central coach Roland Smith said. "We’ll bounce back from this and refocus on what we have to do."
Central (0-1), which looked great a week ago during a 48-6 preseason classic victory at Royal Palm Beach, suffered only its fifth loss since the start of the 2012 season.
Saturday’s debacle was also Central’s most lopsided loss since a 35-3 road defeat that season against Georgia’s Grayson High.
But in 2012, Central was an underdog taking on a team ranked No. 2 in the nation.
On Saturday, the Rockets entered the contest as the team ranked No. 2 by USA Today and MaxPreps.
But it was fifth-ranked DeMatha, which plays another South Florida powerhouse next Saturday when it travels to Plantation American Heritage, that played like a team ready to challenge for a national championship.
Central scored on a pair of touchdown passes, one from starter Jerrod Thomas to receiver Jernard Phillips and one from backup Trijuane Morten to Carmoni Green, but after the Rockets had fallen behind 38-0 late in the third quarter.
DeMatha held Central to only one passing yard and 44 overall in the first half.
"We didn’t do a good job of picking up first downs when we had to," Smith said. "We have to get back to the drawing board and make sure we play Rocket ball the way we know how to play."
Ironically, the game was a scoreless defensive stalemate for about a quarter and a half.
Four penalties including two on third downs sustained DeMatha’s first scoring drive that ended with a 43-yard field goal. After forcing Central to punt, Lorenzo Harrison fielded a short punt at the Central 40 and returned it to the 1-yard line setting up Anthony McFarland’s touchdown on the next play and giving DeMatha a 10-0 halftime lead.
Things unraveled in the second half quickly.
DeMatha quarterback Beau English threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran for another as the Stags scored three touchdowns in less than 10 minutes.
Central’s attempt to score its first points at the midway point of the third quarter also ended in disaster.
A short field goal attempt by freshman Jordan Nadelman was blocked allowing DeMatha’s Tino Ellis to pick up the ball and race 80 yards for a touchdown.
"We hurt ourselves a lot with defensive penalties and then in the special teams game," Smith said. "Our guys relaxed and [Harrison] picked it up and got them down there to score."
Central’s defense actually did a decent job against the run before the game broke open. Sophomore Malik Edwards had a sack and Keir Thomas had a fumble recovery. But English’s ability to make plays using his mobility hurt the Rockets throughout.
Central’s deep and talented backfield amassed 68 yards, but never got any consistent rhythm.
"We were stout up front but not as much as I would like them to be," Smith said. "Their guys did a tremendous job. This game is won or lost up front and they definitely beat us in that today."
The Rockets will have to refocus quickly as they play Miami Killian Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Southridge. Smith stressed to his players the importance of learning from the experience but moving forward as Central tries to win its fourth consecutive state championship.
"Our goal is still to win our district and go on and win a state championship," Smith said. "We have to put the focus back on one game at a time. We have to focus on Killian right now."