Miami Booker T. Washington and Davie University School seemed destined to play each other this season.
But having it happen in the playoffs made it special.
“This is the type of game you want to play in order to win a championship,” Booker T. coach Tim “Ice” Harris said. “To finally get this game is something we’re excited about. Even if the state had not put us both in the same class, I think we would have tried to put this game together in the regular season.
“It’s even better now because of the fact it’s in a winner-take-all [scenario].”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The debate that began in January when the Florida High School Athletic Association moved University School up to Class 4A will be settled Friday night when the Suns host Booker T., the consensus No.-1 ranked team in the nation, in the Region 4-4A final at 7:30 p.m. at Nova High School.
The game marks the first time two defending state champions from South Florida meet in the playoffs the following season.
“[University] Coach [Roger] Harriott put a tough schedule for us on purpose,” senior quarterback Sean White said. “We’ve had to fight through adversity. We’ve faced tough teams, and it will get us ready having seen some things a team like Booker T. can do. It won’t feel like we’re facing an NFL team or anything like that.”
Although not a professional team, Booker T.’s résumé entering this game is nonetheless impressive.
The Tornadoes (11-0) are on a 23-game winning streak that this season includes two out-of-state victories in Georgia (Norcross) and Las Vegas (Bishop Gorman) as well as a win over fellow national powerhouse Miami Central. The Tornadoes are getting healthy with star senior quarterback Treon Harris making his first start in more than a month against Glades Central this past Saturday.
“It’s been a grind, but good for us because we’ve been able to get battle-tested through all of this,” Harris said. “Our backups have been able to respond with all these injuries. We’ve shown signs of being that great team we want to be.”
University School (9-2) slipped from the national rankings a few weeks ago following losses to Bradenton Manatee and Central. University, a team that had won 19 in a row prior to those defeats, has adjusted to the unfamiliar feeling and remains confident it can pull off an upset.
“We’re really feeling confident this week, and I think we have a chance to knock them off the top,” senior defensive end Brandon Boyce said. “If our defensive line does what it can do best, I think we can contain Treon and not let him make big plays.”
University School, a seven-year old football program that won its first state title last season in Class 3A, had not dealt with a regular-season loss for more than two years. Before its undefeated season last year, the Suns went undefeated during the 2011 regular season before losing in the playoffs against Delray American Heritage.
“The good thing that comes out of losses is that it shows your weaknesses more,” University School defensive coordinator Chad Wilson said. “That’s something we haven’t had to deal with too much around here. In 2011, once we saw some of the things we did wrong it was too late.
“The losses to Central and Manatee showed us some things we need to correct in terms of schemes and personnel. It’s a good thing a light was shed on these things. It helped us get after the players more and realize what needs to be adjusted."
One of University’s biggest issues in both losses was stopping the run. Booker T. can run the football with several speedy backs such as Mark Walton and Krondis Larry. But the Tornadoes can also pass with Harris and a speedy core of receivers.
“They have very good athletes fast and physical and they fight to the ball,” University senior linebacker Brandon Russell said. “I think our pass defense will give us a chance. We’ve added some new packages in there to adjust to the running game.”
Pass protection is paramount and something the Suns are hoping to disrupt in order to have a chance.
“We just have to fight off the ball better as an offensive line,” University offensive lineman Mike Irizarry said. “We need to put our hands on them and keep moving with them and give Sean enough time to throw the ball and get our running game going.”
One thing the Tornadoes can do is match the physicality Central showed in its lopsided 28-3 victory against University two weeks ago.
“We have to be physical and tackle well because that’s a very talented team,” Harris said. “Watching them against Central showed us that if we can keep being physical for all 48 minutes, we’ll be fine.”