After all the graduations, transfers, coaching changes, doubts, big wins and tough losses, we have reached December, and Booker T. Washington is still playing football.
The prospect of December football at the Overtown powerhouse could not be taken for granted a year ago when this squad was losing major talent such as Mark Walton and Antonio Callaway, and coach Tim Harris Jr. was packing his bags to coach at FIU, or this summer when the Tornadoes dealt with a mass exodus of underclassmen to other schools.
A team that opened the season with the pressure of defending a 41-game winning streak is a cool customer heading to Orlando after extending two other valuable streaks.
The Tornadoes are level with Central for at least a week for the Miami-Dade County record of five consecutive trips to state and mean to make it 16 consecutive playoff wins, which would in turn give them a county-record four consecutive state titles.
One final test remains against a Jacksonville powerhouse, but not the one they’re used to playing.
▪ Class 4A state championship — Booker T. Washington (8-5) vs. Jacksonville Raines (12-1), 7 p.m., Saturday, Orlando Citrus Bowl: After eliminating Cocoa for the fifth consecutive season, the Tornadoes won’t play Bolles for the fifth time in a row at state.
Instead, they will get a stacked Raines team that took out Bolles a couple of weeks ago. The Vikings are led by two top-flight playmakers on defense — linebacker Michael Pinckney, a University of Miami commitment, and defensive end JaQuan Bailey, a University of Florida commitment.
The duo has combined for 22 of Raines’ 40 sacks this season to lead a defense that has posted seven shutouts this year and limited opponents to 15 points or less in 12 of 13 games this season.
Booker T. needs sensational performances again from freshman quarterback Daniel Richardson and receiver Raymond Flanders, and mainly from a running game that has thrived in the playoffs behind Craig Nelson. If the Tornadoes’ defense led by Jaquan Beaver can stand tough as well, a storybook ending might be in store for BTW. Andre’s pick: Booker T. 27, Raines 24.
▪ Class 8A state semifinal — Flanagan (10-2) vs. Columbus (12-1), 7:30 p.m., Friday, Tropical Park: Points are going to be at a premium Friday much like they were last year when these two met in Pembroke Pines. Flanagan has not allowed a point in the playoffs through three games. Columbus has been almost as stingy, only allowing three points when its full starting defense is on the field. And even that score by South Dade came on a short field last week following a turnover and proved insignificant in the 42-9 Explorers’ win.
Columbus has built itself into a consistent state-title contender as it makes its fourth state semifinal appearance in the past five seasons. For Flanagan, a senior-heavy team, this might be its best chance to break through to state.
The Falcons must dominate up front and control Columbus’ balanced offense if this is to happen. On the flip side, it must keep its running game going. It will come down to who dominates up front and creates turnovers ... and maybe, just maybe, special teams. Andre’s pick: Columbus 10, Flanagan 7.
▪ Class 7A state semifinal — St. Thomas Aquinas (11-1) at Bradenton Braden River (13-0), 7:30 p.m., Friday: Aquinas is familiar with battles against Bradenton area teams this deep in the season, but this time the Raiders won’t be facing Manatee. Instead, Aquinas is bracing for an unbeaten Braden River squad that will make its state-semifinal debut.
Led by FIU commit Jojo Louis, the Pirates have one of the most prolific secondaries in the state with 20 interceptions in the regular season and three last week in the Region 3-7A final. On offense, senior quarterback Jacob Huesman, another FIU commitment, has thrown for over 1,600 yards and 14 TDs this season.
Aquinas sticking to its powerful running attack, which has amassed 2,178 yards this season, and not letting Braden River create turnovers might be the keys to victory Andre’s pick: Aquinas 28, Braden River 14.
▪ Class 6A state semifinal — Naples (11-1) vs. Miami Central (10-2), 7:30 p.m., Friday, Traz Powell: The Rockets survived a penalty-ridden performance (23 for 188 yards) to conquer Daytona Beach’s finest — Mainland — for the second consecutive season.
The Rockets beat Naples on the road in this same round in 2012 in a game in which then-Central running backs Dalvin Cook (FSU) and Joe Yearby (UM) helped Central overcome a 17-point first half deficit and score 20 unanswered in the fourth quarter. That win propelled Central to the first of its current streak of three state titles in a row.
Naples, coached by former American High coach Bill Kramer, has won 11 consecutive games since an opening week loss to Class 3A state finalist Delray American Heritage. Kramer has led Naples to state titles in 2001 and 2007 and a state runner-up finish in 2003 following a 41-0 win over Edison that year.
The Golden Eagles have rushed for 2,710 yards and 50 touchdowns, led by University of Tennessee commit Carlin Fils-Aime (5-11, 175 pounds), and have a passing attack led by senior quarterback Kieran DiGiorno (1,600 yards, 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions) and Tyler Byrd, a 5-11, 160-pound wide receiver/defensive back and UM commit who has 32 catches for 590 yards and eight touchdowns.
Central’s defense is never a cause for concern for me. If it retains the balance it has had on offense the past two weeks, the Rockets will find their way back to Orlando. Andre’s pick: Central 28, Naples 20.
Andre’s record — Dade (Last week): 3-1 (.750); Season: 269-58 (.823); Broward (Last week): 2-1 (.667); Season: 236-53 (.817).