Miami-Dade High Schools

Andre C. Fernandez: South Florida high school football teams look for an encore

South Florida football ruled the state in 2013 with Miami-Dade County teams winning four state championships and Broward and Palm Beach county teams each winning one more to combine for six of the eight state titles. The region is replete with talent once again, giving its best teams a chance to duplicate that success.

Let’s take a look at how they stack up against the rest of the state on the road to Orlando:

CLASS 8A (2013 final: Homestead South Dade 41, Apopka 28).

Regions 1-2: After losing 14 starters, Apopka will have a difficult path to navigate to make a third consecutive visit to the Citrus Bowl. The Blue Darters are still very capable as they return a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, including Auburn recruit Chandler Cox, for their single-wing offense that broke state scoring records a year ago. Tampa Plant is always in the mix, as is Orlando Dr. Phillips, but look for Jacksonville First Coast to be a strong contender led by FSU-committed quarterback De’Andre Johnson. Fort Pierce Central, which went 10-2 last season, returns a deep, balanced squad that will also push the big-name schools.

Regions 3-4: Who will be this year’s South Dade? The Bucs have a tough road to repeat and bring back only two starters from their first state title team. So will Coral Gables, which is coming off its best season since its glory days of the 1960s, take their place? Miramar changed coaches, as Matt Strout takes over for Damon Cogdell, who took a coaching job at West Virginia. The Pats are still one of the best, but rival Pembroke Pines Flanagan is poised for a breakthrough year. Throw in a Coconut Creek Monarch squad with two Alabama recruits in Calvin Ridley and Shawn Burgess-Becker, plus playoff regulars Miami Columbus, Miami Killian and Palm Beach Gardens to the mix and you will have a wild scramble to get to the Citrus Bowl.

CLASS 7A (2013 final: Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer 55, Niceville 39).

Regions 1-2: The battle to face Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in Orlando could come down to some familiar names. State runner-up Niceville has 13 starters back and could clash with Kissimmee Osceola in a rematch of one of last year’s best playoff games (Niceville won 31-30). Tampa Sickles, Lakeland, Melbourne and Neptune Beach Fletcher should all be playoff teams as well and challenge the status quo.

Regions 3-4: There’s no doubt St. Thomas Aquinas is not only the best team in this group, but the hands-down favorite to win this class and possibly its third national championship. The Raiders have nearly 20 FBS recruits on their roster, bolstered by the arrival of a few Davie University School standouts, including UM commit Jordan Scarlett. Top junior prospect Nick Bosa leads a stout defense that should be among the nation’s best. Locally, it doesn’t seem anyone would challenge the Raiders, but expect their stiffer playoff tests to come from a potential rematch with Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer, but the Panthers return only two starters from their state title team. One of them, however, is the reigning Class 7A Player of the Year — QB Daniel Parr.

CLASS 6A (2013 final: Miami Central 52, Seffner Armwood 7).

Regions 1-2: An overmatched Seffner Armwood got embarrassed in last year’s title game against Central. Don’t expect that to happen this time around if the Hawks secure a rematch. Defensive lineman and top national prospect Byron Cowart leads a loaded squad that should be about as good on defense as any team in the nation. Lake City Columbia, St. Augustine, Jacksonville Ed White and Tampa Jefferson are the north side’s other top contenders.

Regions 3-4: Two of the best running backs in Miami-Dade County history — Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby — graduated from Central. But don’t count out the Rockets in their bid for a three-peat. Yes, there are new faces surrounding elite wide receiver Da’Vante Phillips on offense. But Central’s defense is considered the best unit in the nation and deservedly so. Seven starters are back, including FSU commit Calvin Brewton and Fermin Silva. After a tough schedule, Central should be ready for another tough playoff run that will likely include a monumental clash at Daytona Beach against a Mainland team with a high-powered offense that gave the Rockets all they could handle last season. Boynton Beach, Carol City, Hallandale and Naples are also solid contenders. If the Rockets’ offense develops, Central should emerge with a fourth state title in five years.

CLASS 5A (2013 final: Plantation American Heritage 66, Green Cove Springs Clay 8).

Regions 1-2: The usual contenders in the north such as Tallahassee Godby, St. Petersburg Lakewood and Citra North Marion have some question marks. The team with the inside track might be Bushnell South Sumter, which returns 15 starters from a team that has posted back-to-back 10-0 regular seasons. The Raiders have plenty of size up front to contend with the north’s best and potentially an American Heritage at state. West Florida, Pensacola Catholic and Crawfordville Wakulla will all have a chance to make a playoff push.

Regions 3-4: American Heritage ramped up its schedule with games against St. Thomas Aquinas, Miramar and Apopka to prepare for another potential state-title run and put itself in national title contention. With quarterback Torrance Gibson and defensive back Tarvarus McFadden leading a squad ranked in the top 10 nationally to open the season, it’s hard not to see the Patriots making a return trip to Orlando. Merritt Island and Lake Wales could be Heritage’s toughest playoff obstacles. Locally, Cardinal Gibbons is still strong enough to be a playoff team as it contends with Heritage and Miami Jackson.

CLASS 4A (2013 final: Miami Booker T. Washington 40, Jacksonville Bolles 21).

Regions 1-2: It could be the same old story on this half of the state in this class with Bolles bringing back an improved defense and the same punishing ground game. Madison County might be due for a turnaround season following a 5-5 campaign and challenge the Bulldogs for supremacy, along with a Tallahassee Florida High squad that returns 13 starters.

Regions 3-4: New faces in key places but still talented across the board to make a third consecutive state title run. Miami Booker T. Washington won’t go away when talking about the state and nation’s overall best teams. The only factor will be waiting for this team’s new components to gel into the same explosive team it has been the past three years. Cocoa on the road presents a formidable foe again for the Tornadoes should the two should meet for the fourth consecutive season in the state semifinals.

CLASS 3A (2013 final: Jacksonville Trinity Christian 34, Clearwater Central Catholic 7).

Regions 1-2: With almost the whole team returning, why wouldn’t Jacksonville Trinity Christian be the favorite going in? The Conquerors feature LSU commit Kevin Tolliver II and a core of linebackers who all have FBS offers. Trinity Christian’s top playoff resistance could come from teams like Ocala Trinity Catholic or Melbourne Central Catholic, but it’s hard to see either getting the best of the defending champs.

Regions 3-4: Coming off its best season in school history, Westminster Christian figures to be talented enough to make another run to the state final four. The Warriors would have to navigate through a tough region that includes West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman, Delray American Heritage and Pahokee. It could come down to the Warriors and Clearwater Central Catholic for the right to reach state.

CLASS 2A (2013 final: Hialeah Champagnat Catholic 14, Lakeland Victory Christian 7).

Regions 1-2: Victory Christian appears to be the favorite to return to state in the north, returning quarterback Caleb Lewis and adding talented receiver A.J. Harper, the son of former Dallas Cowboys star Alvin Harper. Tallahassee North Florida Christian, South Daytona Warner Christian and Jacksonville University Christian all bring back experienced squads that will challenge Victory for a spot at state.

Regions 3-4: A year after an undefeated season and first state crown, Champagnat reloaded and beefed up its schedule in an attempt to repeat. With a double-digit amount of FBS talent in a small classification such as this, the Lions should have enough to make it through the region and the southern half despite challenges from Belle Glade Glades Day and Largo Indian Rocks Christian.

CLASS 1A (2013 final: Trenton 14, Blountstown 0).

Regions 1-2: Blountstown enters as the favorite to make a return trip to state, returning plenty off a defense that allowed 61 points through its first 13 games last season. Expect Blountstown to battle Port St. Joe for a return trip to Orlando after it dominates in the regular season.

Regions 3-4: The defending state champs from Trenton still have a strong enough squad to make another run, although there are some question marks on offense. Mayo Lafayette, Lake Butler Union County and Dixie County are also solid contenders.

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