Booker T. Washington senior offensive lineman Willa Pierre has never lost a game in high school.
Pierre doesn’t plan on letting anyone change that this season.
“You either play for Booker T. or get beat by Booker T.,” said Pierre, a third-year starter. “I can’t remember the last time I lost a football game, and I don’t want to start now.”
Pierre’s boast echoed the sentiments of a squad eager to prove that Booker T. Washington can still compete at the highest level.
The squad that took the field Monday afternoon at Booker T. on the first day of team practices statewide looks a lot different, however, than the one that hoisted the state championship trophy in Orlando each of the past three seasons.
Booker T. knew it would graduate its starting quarterback, leading rusher and receiver, as well as several key defensive starters. But after several more players transferred to other schools, the Tornadoes were left with only three returning starters on offense and one on defense.
Booker T.’s coaching staff also underwent some changes as former coach Tim Harris Jr. became the running backs coach at FIU and three longtime assistant coaches either retired or resigned.
Earl Tillman, who has been with the program for 13 years including a three-year stint as head coach from 2008 to 2010, was tabbed as coach before the spring in the hopes of maintaining stability to a program that finished at least in the top two nationally each of the past two seasons and advanced to the state final each of the past four seasons.
“You know when you play ball for Booker T. you have to put in the work and compete,” Tillman said. “I was thinking the other day about the Norland boys’ basketball team last year. They lost a bunch of guys that transferred out before the season, and they still found a way to win.
“We lost a lot of kids that could have helped us right now. A lot of those guys thought they would be happier elsewhere, and I wish them well. These kids here have been competing their butts off all summer and are ready.”
Tillman said the team’s success will hinge largely on a talented sophomore class that he said reminds him of the sophomore group that was a part of the first of Booker T.’s three consecutive championship teams.
On defense, end Jaquan Beaver (6-0, 190), tackle Quinton Brooks (6-0, 245), linebackers Marlon Pelote (5-11, 190) and Robert Hicks (6-2, 210) will all play key roles on a unit that should get stronger with experience.
The offense has more experience especially up front with Pierre (6-2, 295), who can play at any position on the line, and left tackle Teaki Fuller (6-3, 280) and tackle Andre Regis (6-4, 235), a transfer from American.
Senior wide receivers Darius Scott (5-10, 160) and senior Raymond Flanders (5-10, 155) have starting experience on offense. Senior linebacker Dedrick Mackey (5-11, 165) will play safety and is the lone returning full-time starter on defense.
Senior Eric Walker (6-0, 175), a transfer from Monsignor Pace who threw for 873 yards last season, will be the starting quarterback.
Players like Pierre and senior wide receivers Scott heard the talk all summer and buzz on social media surmising that Booker T. had lost too much to realistically extend its Miami-Dade County record 41-game winning streak and win a fourth consecutive state title.
The immediate challenge to keep the streak alive looks daunting as Booker T. opens the regular season Aug. 28 at nationally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Tornadoes’ nondistrict schedule also includes Jackson, Southridge, Columbus, Central and Northwestern — all playoff teams last season. Their District 8-4A schedule will pit them against much-improved Gulliver, Monsignor Pace, Edison and Keys Gate.
“I can’t wait for that first game,” Mackey said. “We’re fired up, and we want to show that Booker T. is still here.”