Eric Meadows remembers the days when he and his North Miami football teammates didn’t get a whole lot of respect.
“People used to look at us and think ‘North Miami is on the schedule?’ Automatic win,” said Meadows, a senior who starts at center and middle linebacker for the 9-1 Pioneers.
“Before there wasn’t much to do for us but try and beat NMB. Nobody was used to winning really. Now, it’s different. We want our respect. Nobody wants to lose.”
The Pioneers quest for respect will continue Friday night when they make their first playoff appearance since 1999 against Columbus (6-4) at North Miami Stadium.
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Coach Ed Williams, who took over a program that had finished 2-8 in 2011, didn’t envision his team coming within one play — a missed extra point against Coral Reef — from a potential undefeated regular season. Not after losing 28 seniors to graduation and returning only six starters.
But the Pioneers have grown up about as quickly as junior quarterback Hilton Joseph (5-10, 160 pounds) receives snaps in the team’s Oregon-style spread attack.
“We try to snap it every four seconds,” said Joseph, who has completed nearly 58 percent of his 259 pass attempts for 2,031 yards, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“By the time the runner is down we’re already lined up and we’re waiting for the officials to stop standing over the ball. It helps to play fast. Some games we get set and the other teams have guys missing.”
Playing fast is exactly what Williams has done nearly his entire career.
A former quarterback at Hialeah-Miami Lakes, he shined as a receiver alongside star running backs Troy Davis and Darren Davis at Iowa State before spending six years in the arena football league. He also won a Grey Cup with former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia in the CFL.
Playing fast is one thing. Williams also wants his team to play smart, which it has done.
Of the 518 plays the Pioneers ran this year, they turned the ball over only six times. The defense, meanwhile, took it away 22 times. That’s a stark difference from last year’s 4-5 season, when the Pioneers coughed it up 24 times and took it away only five.
“That’s been a huge key for us,” Williams said. “So has all of our work on special teams.”
If there is something Williams would like to see improve, it’s the recruitment of his players. Outside of USF commitment and fourth-leading receiver Stanley Clerveaux (19 catches, 299 yards, three TDs), not many of the Pioneer seniors are getting looks.
Williams points to Meadows; defensive ends Steve Decius (6-1, 200, a state qualifying wrestler) and Alix Cesar (6-0, 235); and defensive backs Brandon Wright (6-0, 165) and Bryan Jacques (5-10, 175) as senior college-level talents.
The junior class is even more loaded, led by Joseph, leading receivers Tavaris Harrison (41 catches, 642 yards, six TDs) and Victor Sam (28-440-6); defensive end Markes Scott (6-3, 200); and cornerback Wesley Charles (5-11, 160, four interceptions).
“I told these guys from Day One we want to play in a bowl game and we know where that bowl game is — Orlando,” Williams said. “I told them this week start visualizing the buses picking you up. Once you visualize it can become a reality.”