Champagnat junior Irick McDonald lines up right next to 6-3, 290-pound senior defensive tackle Travonte Valentine and has witnessed — up close — just how quickly the University of Miami recruit gets off the ball.
“I’m very fast,” said McDonald, a 6-3, 215-pound defensive end who has committed to the University of Central Florida. “But Travonte is like a bullet coming out of a gun.
“When I take off, he is already a step ahead of me. His first step is vicious.”
The next step for Champagnat comes Friday, when the Lions (12-0) travel to the Tampa area to face Indian Rocks Christian (10-2) in a Class 2A state semifinal.
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Champagnat and Indian Rocks have one common opponent: The Golden Eagles lost a preseason game to Westminster Christian, 38-0; Champagnat beat Westminster 22-7 two weeks later.
The state final is Dec. 6 at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl against the winner of the other seminfinal between Tallahassee North Florida Christian (9-2) and Lakeland Victory Christian (9-3).
A state championship for Champagnat would be just its second in school history in any sport. The boys’ basketball team won a state title in 2000.
No team this season has finished within 10 points of Champagnat, a school that didn’t even have a football program four years ago.
Coach Mike Tunsil started the program in 2010, and, with just 18 players on the roster, the Lions finished 5-5. That was followed by a 6-5 record and a first-round playoff loss and then last season’s disappointing 2-9 mark.
Valentine’s arrival from Melbourne helped transform the defense, and sophomores such as Kato Nelson, the happy-go-lucky quarterback, and wide receiver Darnell Salomon, who already has an offer from the University of Alabama, have remade the offense.
“Kato has a baby face, and he likes to joke around,” McDonald said. “He looks like an Optimist League quarterback because he’s so young-looking.
“But when he puts on his helmet and shoulder pads, he’s all business.”
Nelson’s stats back that up. He has passed for 2,096 yards and 30 touchdowns, against only three interceptions.
His favorite receiver is Salomon, a kid they call “Megatron” because his frame resembles that of NFL star Calvin Johnson. Salomon, who is 6-3 and 180 pounds, has 40 catches for 740 yards and nine touchdowns.
Those two — plus Valentine, who doubles as a dominant right tackle on offense — have helped the Lions average 41.8 points per game.
On defense, the Lions allow just 6.6 points, and Valentine has 28 tackles for losses — including 15 sacks — and has forced six fumbles.
“Some [opponents] don’t want to block him,” McDonald said. “They say: ‘That’s a big dude. I can’t take it no more.’”
The Lions have 32 players on their roster and at least nine have major-college scholarship offers. That’s a significant upgrade in talent from their early days, when the Lions struggled just to find a place to practice.
With no football field on its campus, the Lions have led a nomadic existence the past four years.
“We’ve been kicked out of four different parks,” Tunsil said.
Tunsil said the evictions always came with apologies,
they still stung.
“I’ve been here when we didn’t have anything,” said McDonald, one of just two still-active Champagnat players who was at the school when the program was created four years ago. “There was one time where we practiced on concrete all spring.
“It’s exciting to see how far we’ve progressed.”