With the defending national champions in their district, not many would fault Gulliver Prep if it tempered its excitement for the upcoming season.
That’s not the case for the Raiders though.
“It’s a challenge every year,” Gulliver coach Earl Sims said. “They were No. 1 in the nation and having that team in your district is tough. But it’s an honor to have that challenge. It helps us see how competitive we can be and we’re going to put our best team on the field and see what happens.”
Booker T., ranked in the top 10 nationally, may still be a national title contender and clearly the favorite to win District 8-4A.
But Gulliver isn’t shying away from the challenge and has arguably its best team since it was the Class 2A state runner-up in 2008.
The Raiders, who went 7-4 last season, have a combined 13 starters returning led by a solid group of juniors.
Wide receiver/defensive back Dionte Mullins (6-0, 175) and linebacker Cedric Wright are among the best athletes in Miami-Dade. Wright will line up alongside senior Domonic Sheppard.
Up front, Gulliver expects to put plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks with junior Joseph Jackson (6-6, 240) and 6-3, 220-pound junior Charles Callender bookending the line.
Senior strong safety Chris Sotolongo has had an excellent career so far at Gulliver totaling more than 10 interceptions, and is expected to thrive in this improved defense.
On offense, Gulliver should be able to run the ball effectively with one of the most-promising sophomores in the state in Robert Burns (5-11, 190), who figures to have a breakout season for the Raiders.
“We’re anxious to see what we can become as a team,” Sims said. “We have a lot of guys who have stepped up and led the way over the summer and ready to compete.”
Aside from Booker T., Gulliver will have to once again contend with Monsignor Pace in the district and a much-improved Edison squad that features a solid offensive line.
In the neighboring District 7-4A, Davie University School had several of its players transfer following the departure of coach Roger Harriott to Florida Atlantic University.
Although the Suns don’t appear to be as strong as in the past, Belle Glade Glades Central could be a potential playoff obstacle for Gulliver.
BREAKDOWN• Team to beat: Booker T. Washington. The Tornadoes, the defending national champions, graduated many of its key players from last season. But don’t expect much of a drop off from a team that is still loaded at nearly every position thanks to talented underclassmen and a few key transfers. BTW enters the season ranked in the top 10 nationally under coach Tim Harris Jr.
• Player to watch: Mark Walton, Booker T. running back. Walton has been showing signs of superstardom since he began carrying the ball as a freshman backup for the Tornadoes in 2012. This could be the season he puts up big numbers as the Tornadoes rely on his abilities to make another state and possible national title pursuit.
• New face: Maurice Alexander, Booker T. quarterback. Alexander threw for 2,111 yards and 26 touchdowns at Homestead last season. He becomes a key cog in what is potentially one of the top offenses in the country.
• Biggest game: Booker T. at Gulliver, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. The Tornadoes are the clear favorites in District 8-4A, but Gulliver has a very skilled team and seems to be the only team in the district with even a hope of competing with the defending national champs.
• Predicted order of finish — District 8-4A: 1. Booker T.; 2. Gulliver; 3. Edison; 4. Pace; District 7-4A: 1. Glades Central; 2. University School; 3. Somerset.