High School Sports

Andre C. Fernandez: South Florida’s final four should all win state titles

Columbus’ Juan Carlos De Los Santos, center, celebrates with his team after beating Flanagan this past Friday to reach the 8A title game.
Columbus’ Juan Carlos De Los Santos, center, celebrates with his team after beating Flanagan this past Friday to reach the 8A title game. Miami Herald Staff

College football has its final four teams ready to play for a national title.

South Florida has a different final four that could each walk away from the Citrus Bowl a champion after this weekend.

All four — Plantation American Heritage (Class 5A), Miami Central (6A), Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (7A) and Miami Columbus (8A) — have survived a tough path to reach Orlando that should help them emerge victorious.

Here’s a look at each matchup and what the final four are facing:

▪ Class 8A state championship — Columbus (13-1) vs. Apopka (10-4), 7 p.m., Saturday: Time to pack the Citrus Bowl. At this point Saturday night, the Citrus Bowl parking lot will look like it is hosting a college game as nearby Apopka and Columbus likely provide one of the biggest crowds seen at state since the tournament was in Miami.

Apopka is making its third consecutive state appearance and brought thousands of its faithful to the Citrus Bowl when it beat Weston Cypress Bay in 2012 and lost to Homestead South Dade last year.

Expect Columbus to bring a ton of fans as well as numerous alumni who have been waiting for this moment for at least 32 years — Columbus’ last state appearance — make the trip.

Playing this game in Orlando won’t faze Columbus.

That’s clear for an Explorers team that this season has won a road game against one of Kentucky’s best and last week beat a very good Flanagan team at its home field.

Figuring out and physically slowing down Apopka’s single-wing offense is the only thing keeping Columbus from its first state championship.

Senior offensive lineman Martez Ivey (6-5, 270), rated the No.5 overall prospect in the nation by Rivals.com, could present a major matchup problem for the Explorers.

Columbus’ defense has been tested this season by talented defensive lines such as Central’s and has not allowed more than 12 points in a game since Highlands (Kentucky) on Oct.11.

That, coupled with a balanced offense that can run and throw, means Columbus can eke out another close win if it can avoid mistakes.

Andre’s pick: Columbus 26, Apopka 24.

▪ Class 7A state championship — Kissimmee Osceola (13-1) vs. St. Thomas Aquinas (13-1), 7 p.m., Friday: After leveling its past 11 opponents by a combined score of 552-34, the Raiders are in position to win their eighth state championship.

Aquinas has played like the nation’s best team since its turnaround victory over Miramar in Week 3 and likely would have held the nation’s top ranking had it not slipped early against Don Bosco Prep.

But that loss was a valuable lesson to its players, according to Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo.

Osceola, a team Aquinas beat for a state title in 2007, is in its first state final since that year and runs a flexbone offense, primarily distributing carries among four running backs: senior Edtwain Black, juniors Nazayah Brown and Laderrien Wilson and Marcus Edwards. The four have led a running game that has totaled 4,949 yards.

But the front line of the Raiders led by Nick Bosa is considered one of the best in the nation and more than capable of making sure Aquinas brings home gold once again.

Andre’s pick: Aquinas 38, Osceola 7.

▪ Class 6A state championship — Central (13-1) vs. Seffner Armwood (14-0), 1 p.m., Saturday: Don’t expect the score to say Central 52, Armwood 7 like last year. Do expect a Central running back wearing No.4 to have a big game. Do expect a punishing defense that has 78 sacks entering the game to rack up a few more.

Armwood coach Sean Callahan admitted Monday his team wasn’t ready to handle Central last season. This year, the Hawks should make it a more competitive game, led by a defense that features senior end Byron Cowart (6-4, 275), one of the nation’s best. Senior linebacker Jordan Griffin (Wisconsin commit) and senior cornerback Aaron Covington are tough.

But slowing down Central’s running game of Anthony Jones (who wears No.4) and Cedric Miller has proven a tough task for everyone the Rockets have faced.

If the Rockets follow the formula, they will join Booker T. with a three-peat of their own.

Andre’s pick: Central 30, Armwood 17.

▪ Class 5A state championship — Tallahassee Godby (12-2) vs. American Heritage (11-3), 1 p.m., Friday: After cruising through its first three playoff games, American Heritage found its season on the brink last week in a state semifinal against a resilient Bishop Moore team that tied the score late in the fourth quarter.

Kicker Oren Milstein’s 38-yard field goal sent the Patriots to Orlando. The way the game played out humbled and refocused American Heritage just in time for this week’s final, according to coach Mike Rumph.

The Patriots are vying to win back-to-back state titles, something only done by one other Broward school — St. Thomas.

To do so, Heritage has to beat a Godby team that is two years removed from winning its fourth state title and is led by five FBS-level commitments, including University of Miami commit Brendan Loftus, a 6-7, 295-pound offensive lineman.

Loftus anchors a line that has helped offensive weapons such as junior quarterback Darius Bradwell (6-1, 210 pounds) amass 2,142 all-purpose yards, and senior tailback P.J. Simmons (5-10, 195) run for 1,772 yards and 20 touchdowns on 169 carries.

Godby’s defensive line appears menacing, led by senior ends Danny Thomas (6-2, 225), a University of South Florida commit, Tim Faison (6-3, 210), a Purdue commit and junior tackle Cedric Wood (6-4, 300), an early commit to FSU.

But American Heritage faced all kinds of major talent and complex schemes throughout a regular-season schedule rated among the toughest in the nation.

And with a wakeup call last week against Bishop Moore, be ready for its own group of explosive playmakers to be ready to make an impact early and often like it did last year in a 66-8 laugher against Clay.

Andre’s pick: American Heritage 31, Godby 14.

Andre’s Dade record — Last week: 3-0; Season: 275-57 (.828).

Andre’s Broward record — Last week: 2-0; Season: 227-47 (.829).

NOTE: All games will be played at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.