Another season has begun, and South Florida’s teams have already made a splash, showing how rich this area continues to be in producing some of the best high school football programs in the country.
Miami Central, Miami Booker T. Washington, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas and Plantation American Heritage all won state championships last season. All four are in the hunt for more. Add Pembroke Pines Flanagan to the mix of nationally ranked teams entering the season, and we might have a crowded field at the Citrus Bowl again in December.
Here’s a look at how the state stacks up this season:
2014: Apopka 30, Columbus 23
▪ Regions 1-2: The north might belong again to Apopka, which has reached the final the past three seasons and gone 2-1 against South Florida opponents during that span. Although the Blue Darters graduated offensive stars Chandler Cox (Auburn) and Martez Ivey (Florida), they bring back two potent weapons in juniors Demetric Burch (1,380 yards rushing, 1,003 passing, combined 28 TDs) and DeShawn Massey (5-1, 155 pounds) in its single-wing attack. The duo gave Columbus’ defense fits in the state final. Apopka also returns eight starters on defense. The Blue Darters will undoubtedly have to deal with whichever team wins Region 2, likely Orlando Dr. Phillips or Kissimmee Osceola, but state experience should give Apopka the edge.
▪ Regions 3-4: After coming up short against Columbus in the state semifinals, many believe this is Flanagan’s best chance. One look at the roster shows weapons all over the field on offense. The Falcons also have a loaded defense led by linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and defensive backs Devin Gil and Stanford Samuels, who will double at quarterback until the return of injured starter Kato Nelson at midseason. A semifinal rematch is a possibility as the Explorers return a similarly talented defense led by senior end Joshua Uche. A few teams such as Miramar, South Dade, Deerfield Beach and Coral Gables have talented squads and will make it difficult for this Flanagan-Columbus rematch to happen.
2014: St. Thomas Aquinas 31, Kissimmee Osceola 0
▪ Regions 1-2: Could the Dreadnaughts be back? Lakeland fields one of its best teams in recent memory, led by two offensive star juniors — running back A.J. Davis and wide receiver James Robinson. Lakeland’s defense returned five starters, according to The Lakeland Ledger, and is led by end Matt Kramer. The Dreadnaughts have an early-season clash with Carol City, as well as games against Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach Blanche Ely. They will likely be challenged on the north side of the bracket by district foe Winter Haven, perennial powerhouse Tampa Plant and Orange Park Oakleaf.
▪ Regions 3-4: Aquinas rolled to 13 consecutive wins and state championship No.8 last season. Coach Rocco Casullo stepped down following the season and is now at Miami Mater Academy, opening the door for Aquinas to hire former Davie University School coach Roger Harriott. A large roster replete with stars and depth should own this side of the bracket again, and Aquinas has a strong chance to repeat as state champion for only the second time in its storied program’s history. Dwyer and Venice, and maybe even a reunion with Casullo in the third round against Mater Academy, are potential playoff obstacles on the road to Orlando but not likely enough to slow down the Raiders’ march.
2014: Miami Central 24, Seffner Armwood 10
▪ Regions 1-2: We’ve seen this movie before. People think Armwood is vulnerable after losing several starters, etc. Then, the Hawks still put it all together and reach Orlando. Get ready for a potential rerun. Armwood graduated several starters on defense, but it returns a strong core that will get better with time. Expect its offense to carry the load early behind running backs Erin Collins and Brian Snead. Expect Gainesville and possibly St. Augustine to be dangerous threats in the playoffs to Armwood’s hopes of making it to the finals for the third year in a row and fifth time in six seasons.
▪ Regions 3-4: Central already made Miami-Dade County history by becoming one of two schools to win three state titles in a row and the first to win four in a five-year span in which it reached the finals five consecutive seasons. This year, the Rockets can join Live Oak Suwanee and Tallahassee North Florida Christian as the only state schools to win four in a row. The Rockets might run into a couple of familiar playoff opponents, such as Boynton Beach and either Carol City, Norland, Northwestern or Dillard in the first two rounds. The anticipated rematch with Daytona Beach Mainland, which the Rockets have eliminated from the playoffs three of the past four seasons, would come in the regional final round this year. If Central clears that roadblock, it probably means a semifinal against Naples and then another rematch with Armwood for the title.
2014: Plantation American Heritage 38, Tallahassee Godby 0
▪ Regions 1-2: Crawfordville Wakulla, which last made it to state in 2011 and would like to forget the experience of a 38-0 loss to Norland and NFL running back Duke Johnson, could be on the path back to Orlando. The War Eagles have one of the country’s best quarterbacks in 6-6 LSU commit Feleipe Franks, a three-year starter, and a star receiver in Keith Gavin, an FSU commitment. If Wakulla survives a tough schedule and district that includes Tallahassee Godby, it might clash with a good Citra North Marion squad coached by former Miami Northwestern coach Stephen Field. The Colts almost beat Miami Booker T. Washington in the preseason and have a squad capable of advancing to state for the first time.
▪ Regions 3-4: If there were any doubts American Heritage could defend its state title, they likely evaporated the night of Aug. 22 in Bradenton. The Patriots defeated nationally ranked IMG Academy and sent the state a clear message they are still the favorites to become Broward County’s first team to win three consecutive state titles. The road won’t be easy, with Heritage finding major obstacles right at home in a district that now includes Hallandale, Miami Jackson and Coconut Creek. Orlando Bishop Moore, which Heritage beat on a game-winning field goal in last year’s state semifinals, moved down to Region 4 and returns eight starters on defense. Suffice it to say, if Heritage three-peats, it will definitely have earned it.
2014: Booker T. Washington 54, Jacksonville Bolles 35
▪ Regions 1-2: The annual question on the north end of this bracket is will anyone beat Bolles? Jacksonville Raines has shown potential over the past few years but hasn’t been able to beat Bolles in the playoffs, losing three times in four years to the Bulldogs. Senior defensive end JaQuan Bailey (Florida commitment) and linebacker Michael Pinckney (UM commit) lead a Raines team hoping this will be the year. Bolles, which has played in four consecutive state title games against Booker T. Washington and lost the past three, needs to rebuild its offense, but should have enough on defense to play in the Citrus Bowl in December.
▪ Regions 3-4: Booker T. Washington entered the season winner of three consecutive state titles and 41 wins in a row. Many wonder whether the Tornadoes have enough to win a fourth in a row after losing so much talent from last season. A brutal schedule — St. Thomas Aquinas already routed Booker T. 35-3 on Friday — that includes Central should toughen the Tornadoes for a playoff slate that will likely have Glades Central, Clewiston and another meeting with Cocoa if it advances deep. Booker T. has sent Cocoa home three consecutive seasons in the state semifinals. The Tigers are the favorites, however, as they return nine seniors including defensive back Chauncey Gardner (UF commit), offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor and quarterback Bruce Judson. But Booker T. would host a rematch and might have enough experience by December to keep the streak going.
2014: Jacksonville Trinity Christian 27, American Heritage-Delray 7
▪ Regions 1-2: Trinity Christian finished the season on a high note, winning its second state title in a row and winning a game in the inaugural high school Bowl Championship Series. The Conquerors will be the favorite to win a third in a row led by a potent offense that includes Auburn commit Jalin Buie at running back and third-year starting quarterback Billy Cobb. Senior end Dominique Ross leads a defense that should still be strong. The top challengers on the north end include Lakeland Christian and Ocala Trinity Catholic.
▪ Regions 3-4: Rising power Oxbridge Academy has generated a lot of buzz on the south end as a potential state contender. Led by senior running back and UM commit Travis Horner, the Timberwolves are in a district for the first time, coached by Doug Socha, who led Delray American Heritage to a state title in 2011. The Stallions are Oxbridge’s biggest obstacle, literally, as an offensive line led by 6-5, 330-pound Charlie Brockwell and 6-5, 275-pound Greg Begnoche should make for two potential Oxbridge-Heritage showdowns. Locally, Westminster Christian and much-improved Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna should make the playoffs. But it’s hard to see either breaking through the aforementioned Palm Beach power struggle this season.
2014: Lakeland Victory Christian 54, Largo Indian Rocks Christian 16
▪ Regions 1-2: The three state-ranked teams on this side of the bracket — Victory Christian, North Florida Christian and University Christian — all lost their preseason classics. This muddled picture should start to take shape by midseason, however. Reigning champion Victory Christian graduated some key offensive starters but is still strong enough to make a return to state. With eight starters back on defense, however, North Florida Christian might be ready to end its playoff jinx against Victory and claim a spot in Orlando.
▪ Regions 3-4: Miami Champagnat Catholic never got a chance to defend its 2013 state crown after having to vacate the bracket following a forfeit in a regular-season game against IMG Academy. The Lions are strong enough under new coach Dennis Marroquin to challenge Belle Glade Glades Day for the Region 4 title. But Indian Rocks Christian brings back a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Theo Anderson and Zele McGaughy, and will be a formidable foe for whoever emerges from South Florida.
2014: Port St. Joe 16, Jasper Hamilton County 0
▪ Regions 1-2: The reigning state champions from Port St. Joe return 15 starters and should make a strong push for the school’s fifth state crown. Blountstown, a state runner-up in 2013, presents the biggest obstacle to the Tiger Sharks’ reign at the top on the north end.
▪ Regions 3-4: A few notable schools from around the state moved into this classification and should make things interesting on the south side of the bracket. Pahokee, which appears to be gradually bringing its program back to prominence under alum Alphonso Smith, has 13 starters back including eight on defense. Fort Meade, a state champion in 2004 and playoff team from 1999 to 2010, has a solid offense as well. And Madison County, a two-time state champion that was runner-up in Class 3A in 2011 and 2012, drops from Class 4A to toughen up this bracket.