Even in a season when Booker T. Washington appears down, it can never be counted out in Class 4A.
Graduating 23 seniors, losing several other key players to transfers and having coach Earl Tillman lead the way in the first year of his second stint with the Tornadoes, it could have been easy to chalk 2015 up as a transition year.
The three-time defending state champs were having none of that.
Proving themselves significantly better than the .500 record they played to in the regular season, the Tornadoes are going back to Orlando for the fifth consecutive season behind a 33-14 victory over Cocoa in a state semifinal Friday night at Traz Powell Stadium.
“We had some ups and downs week in and week out,” Tillman said. “The kids have been buying into the program. We took some tough losses to some tough teams. … We used those games as games to get us stronger and prepare us for this upcoming road.
“Right now, it’s a different team.”
It’s the fifth consecutive season Booker T. (8-5) gets through Cocoa (10-3) in the semifinals to reach the state final. The Tornadoes have now won 15 consecutive postseason games.
Each of the previous four trips to Orlando have pinned Booker T. with Jacksonville Bolles, but this time they will get the team that ousted Bolles in the regional finals, Jacksonville Raines, at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 in the Citrus Bowl.
Freshman sensation Daniel Richardson completed 25 of 36 passes for 239 yards. He threw two touchdown passes and ran for another one.
“We just had to play together, couldn’t let anything hold us back. We had to play as a team,” Richardson said. “I just took my short routes, got my confidence going, tried to use my feet and tried to win this game.”
Richardson hit Darrius Scott with a 26-yard touchdown pass deep over the middle to put the Tornadoes up two scores on the first drive of the second half.
Craig Nelson, who totaled 114 yards with 20 carries and five receptions and pounded a fatigued Tigers defense late, sealed it with a 2-yard rushing score with 3:59 remaining.
Richardson completed his first seven attempts as Booker T. got off to a rousing start, going up 14-0 within the first five minutes Friday.
He capped the opening drive with a 13-yard touchdown run out of a read-option. Cocoa fumbled a short pooch on the ensuing kickoff, and Richardson marched the Tornadoes back down the field, connecting with Raymond Flanders in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
“We didn’t let the 5-5 record stop us, and we just kept going and have played hard throughout the playoffs,” said Flanders, who has been on the three previous state title teams but is getting playing time at receiver for the first time this year.
Flanders caught nine passes for 87 yards Friday.
Cocoa bounced back into the contest with its running game in the first half. Quarterback Bruce Judson, who tallied 133 yards on 16 carries, and Timmy Pratt (52 yards on 14 attempts) each scored a rushing touchdown whereas Booker T. settled for field goals on its second-quarter drives.
It was 20-14 at halftime, but the Tornadoes were impregnable against the run in the second half. Cocoa eventually had to open up the playbook to vie for a comeback, attempting its first pass at the 2:41 mark of the third quarter.
That opened it up for fourth-quarter interceptions by Detron Holloway and Rishard Dames.
“We settled down and made the defensive guys realize in order for them to beat us they’re going to count on [Judson],” Tillman said.
“We were able to hit him and got them doing what they don’t do very well, which is try to pass the ball.”
BTW- Richardson 13 run (Borregales kick)
BTW- Flanders 20 pass from Richardson (Borregales kick)
COC- Judson 47 run (Petruzzello kick)
BTW- FG Borregales 30
COC- Pratt 6 run (Petruzzello kick)
BTW- FG Borregales 29
BTW- Scott 26 pass from Richardson (kick failed)
BTW- Nelson 2 run (Borregales kick)
Rushing (att-yds) -- COC: Stewart 2-15, Gardner 3-34, Pratt 14-52, Judson 16-133. BTW: Walker 3-(-3), Hammett 2-4, Scott 1-8, Richardson 7-21, Johnson 4-21, Nelson 20-79.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- COC: Judson 4-9-2, 24. BTW: Richardson 25-36-0, 239.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- COC: Armour 1-7, Armstrong 3-17. BTW: Dames 3-13, Johnson 3-27, Nelson 5-35, Scott 2-36, Thorton 3-51, Flanders 9-87.