With the greater expectations comes the larger target on the back.
Coral Gables, primed to make a deep run this season and contend for the Class 8A state championship coming off its first 11-win season since 1969, took Southridge’s best shot in the season opener Friday night at Curtis Park.
But with its strong defensive line play and potent pass rush in the most crucial moments, the Cavaliers ultimately prevailed in a grind-it-out 19-7 win.
With Coral Gables (1-0) leading by six in the fourth quarter, Southridge (0-1) twice had possession and a chance at a game-winning drive, but first the Spartans were stopped by back-to-back sacks to force a punt and then 6-2, 225-pound defensive end Kenneth Herring picked off a screen deep in Southridge territory with under two minutes remaining to clinch it.
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“I was going for the sack, then I realized that the screen was coming. My reaction told me to back up,” says Herring, who also had a pair of sacks. “I was in the right place at the right time.
“To know that I put the nail in the coffin, it’s a good feeling.”
Herring rumbled to the 5-yard line after the key interception, which eventually led to 1-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining from Amir Rasul, who scored twice.
The Cavaliers recorded 12 sacks and intercepted three passes Friday. Shakur “Pooh Bear” Cooper had five of those sacks, and Jarred McGahee added four more.
“Our D-line, we call ourselves the Fantastic Four,” Herring says. “We feel like we work harder than any position group on our team and any position group in Dade County.”
While the Cavaliers survived the slugfest, the thought after the game was that they still had a long way to go if they plan on winning their first state title since 1968.
“We’re not the team from last year, and there are some guys that have showed up and think that it’s just going to magically happen,” Coral Gables coach Roger Pollard said. “It’s just realizing that when you put that warrior mask on, when you put that gladiator equipment on, that you’re going to war.”
After getting shut out in the first half, Southridge coach Don McKnight made a switch at quarterback, going with a scrambler in Shawn Chandler.
It stunted Gables’ momentum as Chandler put together a time-consuming initial drive of the second half that took up most of the clock in the third quarter. He marched the Spartans down the field and capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Scott at the pylon on fourth down.
Once the Cavs figured him out, however, they began piling on the sacks.
“It was hard to adjust to the new running quarterback,” Cooper says. “We just had to bring the pressure. We just had to watch the ball. Sometimes they’ll do the read-run, so we had to settle down for a second.”
Rasul, who finished with 41 yards on nine carries, put the Cavs up two scores late in the first half when he took a handoff up the middle, cut left and breezed into the end zone from 19 yards out. Kevin Romer took them into halftime with a 13-0 lead with an interception on a deep ball that hung in the air too long.
Gables first got on the board with a floating pass from quarterback Voshon Waiters over the Southridge safeties to 6-2 tight end Andres Saldivar early in the second quarter.
Waiters went 8 for 16 for 79 yards, the touchdown and an interception.
The teams played to a stalemate in the first quarter. They exchanged interceptions on their initial drives. Gables’ Khamal Ellison picked off Jerry Drakar on the first play of the game, but Waiters was intercepted by Southridge’s Tarvandus Donaldson shortly thereafter.
Coral Gables will face Krop next week before a matchup with Columbus that could determine the District 14-8A champ very early in the season, but Pollard doesn’t want to buy into the hype of the winner of that game getting into the driver’s seat.
“Sitting here after seeing our performance just now when you know that Columbus team just put up 45 on South Dade, ‘Hell no,’” he said. “It’s about looking at ourselves and asking, ‘Are we going to be able to step up to this hype?’ ”