Miami Central is hoping to add a state-record fifth consecutive state championship to its résumé and what would be its sixth title in the past seven seasons.
While Central contending in Class 6A has become expected, Class 8A is where a major storyline is developing.
After more than a decade of coming up short, the question being asked around Miami-Dade County: “Is ‘The Ridge’ back?”
1. Central: The Rockets didn’t open the season with as much acclaim nationally as some of South Florida’s other ranked teams. Expect that to change quickly if Central continues to play the way it has since opening the season.
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Accomplishing its goal of adding another state title to its trophy case will hinge on its offense balancing a strong running game with a young quarterback getting the ball to his playmakers. On defense, Central lost numerous key players, but reloaded behind linebacker Waynmon Steed, who missed all of last season because of injury.
Any chance the Rockets have of contending for a national title will rely on beating rival Booker T. Washington in late September. The path to Orlando will no doubt be replete with familiar foes like Carol City, Northwestern and Norland in district, followed by potential rematches with Daytona Beach Mainland and Seffner Armwood.
I say Central has plenty in the tank to complete its drive for five.
2. Southridge: Southridge hasn’t made it to the state championship game since 1999. That drought may end this season if the Spartans’ most talented roster since their glory days of that decade can mesh down the stretch. A couple of early-season tests against Columbus and Booker T. Washington should provide an indication as to just how good this squad can become. Getting by Columbus — in November — is the biggest hurdle this team would face. If they do, a state championship is very possible.
3. Columbus: The experience of getting as far as the state semifinals (with one state championship appearance) in recent years is an advantage no other team in the region can claim. The secondary is one of the best in the nation, and the Explorers’ backfield should be one of the best in the county. But can depth and quarterback play navigate them past a much-improved Southridge squad and Broward County’s last team standing after that?
4. Northwestern: If the Bulls survive a brutal early-season stretch healthy and with a few W’s, look for them to make a serious run to the postseason. This team has been building up to this for over a year under coach Max Edwards and is very capable of securing a playoff spot and maybe even putting a scare into longtime rival Central.
5. Coral Gables: The Cavaliers completed a perfect regular season last year and won District 14-8A only to watch it all crumble in a regional semifinal loss to Columbus. Gables appears to have the weapons to return to the postseason, but the only way it gets past the Explorers is if its offense can match its stingy defense.
6. Carol City: Another team with a fantastic defense and loads of talent. But the Chiefs have appeared offensively challenged in the early going. And if that doesn’t change soon, it could find itself looking up at the Rockets and Bulls in the district and going home early. If it can get consistent quarterback play and improvement on special teams, the talent is there to claim the district’s second spot.
7. Norland: Coach Daryle Heidelburg’s squad might end up as the best team in the state this year to finish last in its district. Or if the Vikings develop a little more offense as the season progresses, look for them to contend for a winning record. Breaking through the blockade of Central, Northwestern and Carol City will be really tough.
8. Mater Academy: Rocco Casullo enters his second year at the helm of this emerging contender, which should have the talent to win District 16-7A once again. Another regional finals appearance isn’t out of the question. But then it would have to play Casullo’s former team again….you know, that STA team that’s still one of the nation’s best.
9. Belen Jesuit: The Wolverines start the season in Ireland. And if they follow their formula of well-coached fundamentally sound football, they will probably finish having claimed another District 15-8A championship and maybe even add one playoff victory.
10. South Dade: The Bucs were decimated by graduation following a regional finals appearance last year. While Southridge appears to be the top team in the district, coach Nate Hudson’s squad is capable of emerging with the runner-up spot despite tough challenges from Killian and Palmetto.
11. Killian: If the Cougars can assimilate to the Wing-T under new coach Javi Valdes, they might upend South Dade and Palmetto for one of the district’s playoff spots.
12. Palmetto: The Panthers have not made the playoffs since 2008. This is their best shot to end that drought as coach Mike Manasco enters his third season turning around his alma mater.
13. Doral Academy: Coach Jase Stewart, a former assistant coach at Norland, came over from Hallandale and might have enough weapons to guide the Firebirds to the playoffs for the first time.
14. North Miami Beach: Jeff Bertani’s squads have alternated years making the playoffs since 2008. This is an even year and the Chargers are much improved. How does a district title sound, NMB?
15. North Miami: This will be a bounce-back season for the Pioneers, who plan to ruin NMB’s hopes at winning a wide open District 13-8A as they did for two consecutive seasons before last year.
16. Southwest: The Eagles are younger this season, but have one of the most dynamic freshman players in the county in Andre Stringfield and should be good enough to return to the postseason in District 15-8A.
17. Krop: The Lightning is in a transition year under new coach Mike Farley. But this group has some good young talent capable of pushing District 13-8A’s best.
18. Goleman: The Gators should improve noticeably from last season, but whether they can contend with Mater and Doral remains to be seen.
19. Hialeah: The T-Breds lost a lot of players, but coach Steve Smith should still have them in the mix for one of District 13-8A’s playoff berths.
20. Miami Beach: Led by quarterback Eddie Brill, the Hi-Tides might be good enough to move up in the district and contend for a winning season.
The rest: 21. Reagan; 22. American; 23. Miami High; 24. Miami Springs; 25. Varela; 26. Coral Reef; 27. Ferguson; 28. South Miami; 29. Homestead; 30. Braddock; 31. Hialeah Gardens; 32. Sunset; 33. Mourning; 34. Coral Park; 35. Westland Hialeah.