After more than four decades, is Coral Gables really ready to take the next step and go back to being a regular state championship contender?
The Cavaliers took the first step in 2013 by winning 11 games for the first time since 1969 and advancing to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
Gables lost a heartbreaker to South Dade and then watched the Bucs win their first state title. With an experienced defense and numerous weapons on offense returning, the Cavaliers believe they can be this year’s South Dade.
The road will be difficult, however, with rival Columbus still a formidable foe, and South Dade, Killian and top contenders from Broward County such as Miramar, Pembroke Pines Flanagan and Coconut Creek Monarch all in contention.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
With Class 8A wide open statewide, the chance is there for Gables to seize this opportunity and join Miami Central as likely state championship teams.
1. Central: The Rockets proved in their opening win against Hoover (Alabama) they can still run the football without Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby. Couple that with one of the country’s best defenses and expect Central to be the favorite to win its fourth state title in five years and stay in the hunt for a national title.
2. Coral Gables: With arguably its best defense in decades, a dangerous running game and talented wide receivers, this season could be a return to the glory days for the Cavaliers, who are seeking their first state title since 1968.
3. Carol City: One of the most exciting new players in the county could be junior quarterback Stephen Buckshot Calvert. Calvert threw five touchdown passes in the preseason and could lead an already potent offense back to the playoffs. But is it enough to contend with Central for larger prizes?
4. Columbus: After two state semifinals appearances, the Explorers took a step back last year, losing to Gables in the regional semifinals. Columbus could be the sleeper pick to represent Dade in Class 8A.
5. Killian: Elite players such as Jaquan Johnson lead a younger but still talented Cougars squad that is favored to repeat as District 16-8A champions. The question remains if Killian has enough to survive Region 4-8A and make it to state for the first time since winning it all in 2004.
6. South Dade: The defending Class 8A champs were hit hard by graduation, but a strong group of underclassmen and senior running back Johnnie Hankins are eager to prove South Dade hasn’t dropped off the map.
7. Northwestern: New coach Eddie Brown comes in with a new staff and a dynamic freshman quarterback in Chatarius Atwell hoping to revitalize this proud program.
8. Norland: Following a dismal 3-7 season, expect the Vikings to be better. The schedule is still brutal as is District 16-6A, making it difficult to see Norland in the playoffs.
9. North Miami: After winning their first district title since 1991 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Pioneers hope postseason success is next.
10. American: New coach Anthony White comes over from Norland and hopes to maintain a talented Patriots team as the best in District 16-7A.
11. Southwest: The dynamic De’Undre Pickett-White and Trevon Sands are seniors who are trying to lead the Eagles to a third consecutive district title. Is an elusive playoff win in the cards as well?
12. Homestead: Several key contributors either graduated or transferred, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare for the Broncos. Making the playoffs doesn’t look likely in a tough District 16-6A, but a winning record is possible.
13. Hialeah: The T-Breds lost more than half of their starters on each side of the ball, but a strong junior varsity team should bolster depth and keep them in the playoff hunt.
14. Southridge: Figure the Spartans to be improved and ready to challenge South Dade and Killian for one of the district’s playoff spots.
15. Belen Jesuit: The Wolverines should be good enough to secure a playoff berth in District 15-8A, and they will try to upend Southwest as the top team in the division.
16. Mater Academy: The Lions should be in the same position late in the season as last year, which is battling for their first playoff berth. This could be the breakthrough year.
17. Miami Springs: The Golden Hawks bring back 10 starters on defense and have a good chance to make it back-to-back playoff trips after having not made it since 1995.
18. Miami Beach: The Hi-Tides have a new coach in Aaron Harris, a former assistant at Mourning. They should still finish in the upper half of District 14-8A but be held back by Coral Gables and Columbus.
19. Coral Reef: Veteran Billy Rolle stayed on as coach, but he has a tough task of trying to make the Barracudas a playoff team.
20. Palmetto: The Panthers should be better than last year’s 3-7 squad under new coach Mike Manasco, but the playoffs are likely not in store in this brutal district.
21. South Miami: Good enough possibly for a winning record but not the playoffs in a district with Gables and Columbus.
22. Reagan: The Bison will look more like the team that went 9-1 playing independent two years ago. But challenging North Miami and Hialeah for the postseason remains to be seen.
23. North Miami Beach: Jeff Bertani’s squad has a few core players who are seniors and need to step up if NMB is to return to the playoffs.
24. Miami High: Coach Ivan Rosales is slowly making improvements, and it could show in the win column this season.
25. Hialeah-Miami Lakes: After a couple of dismal seasons, the Trojans might have enough to return to respectability.
26. Varela: Likely the third-best team in District 15-8A, but this shows how wide the gap is from the top of the pack.
27. Ferguson: Right there with Varela, but it would take a huge effort to snare a playoff spot from Southwest or Belen.
28. Braddock: Always competitive and in the mix among the district’s middle of the pack.
29. Dr. Krop: Athletic in certain areas but still tough to see them win many.
30. Mourning: It will be interesting to see how the players react to their coaching changes.
31. Coral Park: New coach Steve Smith should make the Rams better, but there’s a lot of work to do.
32. Sunset: Still tough to see them rising much in a very competitive district.
33. Goleman: Maybe a couple more wins if the team stays healthy.
34. Westland Hialeah: A tall climb for the Wildcats under new coach Trevlin Payne awaits.
35. Hialeah Gardens: A spring game win was something to celebrate. Now, can they win one that counts?