Earl Tillman has experienced both football perfection and absolute futility during his two-plus decades coaching high school football in Miami-Dade County.
This Booker T. Washington team landed smack in the middle of that spectrum during the regular season.
And that is what is making this week so special.
“I’m more excited than I’ve ever been in my 23 years of coaching in this county,” Tillman said. “No one deserves this chance more than these guys. I would love to see our guys go out there on Saturday and win it all.”
Tillman, who has dealt with adversity on and off the field during his career, has guided the Tornadoes through a tumultuous season all the way back to Orlando for the fifth season in a row.
And on Saturday, Booker T. Washington (8-5) can add to its growing tradition if it beats Jacksonville Raines in the Class 4A final at 7 p.m. in the Citrus Bowl and secure its county-record fourth consecutive state title.
The Tornadoes would become only the third team in the playoff era (since 1963) to win four consecutive state championships, joining Live Oak Suwannee (1987-1990) and Tallahassee North Florida Christian (1998-2001). Miami Central also would join the group if it beats Naples on Friday and wins its fourth Class 6A title in a row next weekend.
“This is something special for this school, this community, the alumni and everyone that supports the Tornadoes,” Tillman said. “It’s been an up-and-down ride, but we’re here.”
Tillman has learned to deal with adversity during a coaching career where he has experienced multiple unbeaten seasons at Booker T. and once endured a winless season at his alma mater, Miami High.
During the start of his first stint as coach at Booker T. in 2008, Tillman fractured his knee in three places while breaking up a brawl during a 7-on-7 tournament. Tillman began a slow process to recovery while continuing to coach the Tornadoes in the years that followed, both as head coach until Tim “Ice” Harris returned before the 2011 season and after as an assistant coach.
“I think I was put in that situation for a reason and through his help I was able to emerge and have the opportunity to come out here and be a role model to these young men,” Tillman said.
Tillman took over as coach for the second time before this season and inherited a squad that graduated several key seniors and lost numerous others who transferred to other schools. The youth showed during an inconsistent 5-5 season in which Booker T. suffered lopsided losses to St. Thomas Aquinas and Columbus as well as close defeats to Northwestern, Jackson and Central.
Tillman said the schedule toughened his young players and got them ready for their run.
Their starting quarterback, Daniel Richardson, who leads the county in passing, is a freshman.
Jaquan Beaver, their starting rush end on defense who leads the county in sacks (24), is a sophomore. And there are several other young players and inexperienced seniors who have stood out.
Other defensive standouts such as sophomore end Robert Hicks, junior tackle Anthony Turner and sophomore linebacker Marlon Pelote are among the team’s top tacklers. Junior defensive backs Richard and Rishard Dames have made the secondary one of the team’s strengths in the playoffs.
Even seniors who did not have experience before the season have become a vital part of the team’s success.
“All we told the kids was that we needed to make sure we won our district games,” Tillman said. “If we did that, we knew we would punch our ticket to the tournament of champions no matter what your record says.”
Football state finals
Where: The Citrus Bowl, 1 Citrus Bowl Place, Orlando.
Admission: $12 per session; Parking: $10.
Friday’s schedule – Class 2A: Tampa Cambridge (12-0) vs. Jacksonville University Christian (10-3), 1:07; Class 1A: Trenton (13-0) vs. Port St. Joe (11-1), 7:07.
Saturday’s schedule – Class 3A: Jacksonville Trinity Christian (13-0) vs. Delray American Heritage (10-2), 1:07; Class 4A: Booker T. Washington (8-5) vs. Jacksonville Raines (12-1), 7:07.
Saturday’s state final
BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (8-5)
VS. JACKSONVILLE RAINES (12-1)
Coaches: BTW — Earl Tillman Jr. (7th year, 44-40); RAI — Deran Wiley, (7th year overall).
State experience: BTW — 4-1 (won in 2007, ’12, ’13, ’14); RAI — 1-1 (Won state title in 1997).
Road to state: BTW — d. NSU University School 41-18; Belle Glade Glades Central 35-21; Cocoa 33-14; RAI — d. Panama City Rutherford 41-0; Jacksonville Bolles 34-8; Alachua Santa Fe 35-14.
Probable offensive starters – BTW: WR Raymond Flanders, 5-11, 170, Sr.; LT Teaki Fuller, 6-3, 295, Jr.; LG Willa Pierre, 6-3, 295, Jr.; C Daniel Jean, 6-2, 265, Sr.; RG Dontae Lucas, 6-4, 320, Fr.; RT Andre Regis, 6-5, 265, Sr.; WR Darrius Scott, 5-10, 170, Sr.; QB Daniel Richardson, 6-0, 175, Fr.; HB Craig Nelson, 6-0, 185, Jr.; WR Gustavious Dames, 5-10, 160, Sr.; WR Horial Jones, 5-11, 170, Sr.; K Jose Borregales, 5-10, 155, Sr.; RAI: LE Ronald Patterson, 6-2, 185, Sr.; LT Joshua Bailey, 6-3, 245, Sr.; LG Solomon Kindley, 6-5, 330, Sr.; C Travaris Shanks, 6-0, 250, Sr.; RG Terrion Williams, 5-11, 240, Sr.; RT Floyd Bellamy, 6-0, 220, Sr.; RE Rick Wells, 6-2, 195, Sr.; QB August Debiase, 6-1, 200, Sr.; HB Alex Rutledge, 5-9, 195, Sr.; FB Willie Wright, 5-8, 160, Jr.; FL Dalvin Storey, 6-2, 175, Sr.; K Ronald Patterson, 6-2, 185, Sr.
Probable defensive starters – BTW: LE Jaquan Beaver, 5-11, 190, So.; DT Branden Tobar, 6-0, 225, Sr.; DT Quinton Brooks, 6-2, 275, So.; RE Robert Hicks, 6-2, 210, So.; MLB Ladarius Williams, 5-8, 175, Sr.; SLB Marlon Pelote, 5-10, 185, So.; DB Richard Dames, 5-11, 165, Jr.; NB Dedrick Mackey, 5-11, 170, Jr.; CB Myron Morris, 6-0, 175, Sr.; CB Rishard Dames, 5-10, 170, Jr.; S Marquis Decius, 5-10, 175, Sr.; P Jose Borregales, 5-10, 155, Sr.; RAI: LE Jaquan Bailey, 6-3, 230, Sr.; LT Keyshawn Thompson, 5-10, 220, Sr.; LB Jaquan Holt, 6-2, 210, Sr.; RE Dedric Mims, 6-0, 195, Sr.; LB Michael Pinckney, 6-1, 205, Sr.; DB William Westbrook, 5-11, 185, Sr.; LB Tyrann Baxter, 5-10, 195, Sr.; DB Bishop Bonnett, 5-8, 165, Sr.; DB Dajuan Jackson, 5-10, 180, Sr.; DB Malik Goodman, 5-10, 180, Sr.; S Deontre Hill, 5-10, 180, Sr.; P Jaquan Holt, 6-2, 210, Sr.