South Florida’s high school football teams are on the threshold of history.
And that’s saying a lot for our corner of the peninsula, which produces elite players with the same abundance that France produces fine wines.
It’s a vintage year. Three more schools from Miami-Dade and Broward counties compete for state titles Friday and Saturday, one week after three other schools representing the 305 and 954 went to Orlando, and two came home with championship trophies.
A record six South Florida teams will have played in the state finals, and five could win titles, breaking the record of three from 2003 (Carol City, Miami Monsignor Pace, Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna) and 2007 (Miami Booker T. Washington, Miami Northwestern, St. Thomas). Eight local teams made the semifinals.
One compelling season follows another in this pigskin-obsessed region.
Bored to tears with the Miami Dolphins? You ought to turn your attention to prep football, which, on an emotional level, has much more to offer than the NFL.
Please don’t consider aiming a reality TV camera on these kids, coaches and parents because this is true drama, not the fake kind.
Spend an extremely long day with coaches such as Telly Lockette, Mark Guandolo, Tim “Ice” Harris and their players and you will see how much they sacrifice for each other, for love of the game.
On Friday, perennial powerhouse St. Thomas pursues its seventh state title when it plays Tallahassee Lincoln. St. Thomas upset Bradenton Manatee, the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, last week.
On Saturday, the Miami Central Rockets go after their second title in three years against undefeated Gainesville before Weston Cypress Bay plays Apopka.
Last week, Booker T., the pride of Overtown, won its second title in five years by beating Jacksonville Bolles. University School of Davie, ranked No. 7 in the nation, defeated Madison County. Dade Christian, whose players go both ways, was runner-up.
With a win, Central can join Booker T. (two), Norland (two), Southridge (two), Carol City (four), Coral Gables (four) and Northwestern (four) as one of Miami-Dade’s multiple state champions since playoffs began in 1963.
Is there something in the water? Most attribute the bountiful success of teams statewide to the climate, the opportunity to play the sport year-round. It’s no coincidence Canada is rich in hockey players or Austria churns out skiers.
But it goes beyond warm weather. South Florida isn’t nearly the same sort of hotbed for basketball or even swimming.
Don Soldinger, former coach at Southridge and assistant at the University of Miami and recent University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame selection, has had his fingers on the pulse of the sport for 45 years. He has been part of the rich football culture embedded in our oolitic limestone.
South Florida is renowned for speed, but it goes deeper than sheer talent, or the current preoccupation with spread offenses, Soldinger said.
“It’s the timeless things — discipline, character, commitment, accountability,” he said. “Plenty of states have talent — Texas, Ohio, California. Plenty of teams have talent. The teams that win state titles are doing the academic work, the strength work, the preparation work. Their kids are running in the summer and their coaching staffs are in the stands scouting opponents.”
Soldinger was helping out at Southridge earlier this season. He noticed guys were skipping weight room sessions or not filling out their logs. He asked Clinton Portis to address the players.
“He came in, and the one kid I wanted to listen to him didn’t show up,” Soldinger said. “Great athlete, but as Clinton said, as Frank Gore and Edgerrin James say, you’ve got to have the right mentality. You’ve got to hustle like crazy, no excuses. What you demand of yourself is what you get.”
Soldinger reels off names of coaches from Jacksonville to Lakeland to the Panhandle to Pahokee and Belle Glade and back to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. From Nick Kotys to George Smith to Billy Rolle.
“Florida is known for good coaching,” Soldinger said. “College recruiters know they are getting a complete person from our top schools. The best coaches preach the tough lessons. There’s a difference between running a program and putting a team on the field.”
South Florida sets itself apart this time of year. Not just because its quarterbacks, running backs, defensive backs and linebackers are faster, but because they have been breathing the air permeated by football passion since they were kids playing in the street.
It’s why it is easy to name accomplished native sons: Teddy Bridgewater (Northwestern, Louisville), Denard Robinson (Deerfield Beach, Michigan), Geno Smith (Miramar, West Virginia), Amari Cooper (Northwestern, Alabama), Devonta Freeman (Central, Florida State), Duke Johnson (Norland, University of Miami), Giovani Bernard (St. Thomas, North Carolina). The roll call goes on, and includes a long list of pros such as Gore and Jonathan Vilma (Coral Gables), Andre Johnson (Miami High), Antrel Rolle (South Dade), Kenny Phillips (Carol City), Jon Beason (Chaminade), Brandon Harris (Booker T.).
More will earn a championship this weekend that is extra special because it signifies best in the state of Florida.