Coming into the Class 6A semifinal against Miami Northwestern, the Naples High School defense was averaging less than eight points allowed a game.
The Bulls put up 20 before the first quarter was finished and then cruised to a 40-7 victory. Northwestern ended Naples’ season in the state semifinals a second consecutive year, having dispatched of the Golden Eagles 42-7 at home last year on its way to the state championship. The Bulls (9-5) take on Seffner-Armwood next Saturday in a rematch of last year’s Class 6A state title game.
The road hasn’t been quite as easy for the Bulls this year, as they entered the playoffs at 5-5 after playing a brutally tough schedule. But that schedule got them ready for a big postseason run, where the Bulls are easily playing their best football of the season.
“We felt really good about our situation coming in,” Northwestern coach Max Edwards said. “We were on a nice winning streak and we felt we could keep it going. Naples is a great program. We look forward to playing them every year. We expected a hard-fought game and it was.”
The Bulls broke through on the game’s opening drive, getting some help from the Naples defense. The Golden Eagles had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Naples was flagged for a late hit on quarterback Isiah Velez to keep the possession going. The Golden Eagles had another chance to get off the field by forcing a third-and-17, but Velez found Dwight Jackson over the middle for an 18-yard gain. A pair of Nathan Noel runs netted 20 yards, and Velez found Sean Delaughter for a 19-yard score and a quick 7-0 lead.
“That really set the tone and let our team know that we came ready to play,” Edwards said. “There haven’t been a lot of times where we’ve scored on the first drive, so that was very big.”
Naples’ nightmarish start continued on the ensuing kickoff, with the receiver falling down at the 5 to set up horrible field position for the Golden Eagles. The Bulls forced a three-and-out and after a short punt, and Velez scored on the first play of the ensuing drive – a 30-yard run off the bootleg – to make it 14-0.
Naples went three-and-out again on the next possession, and Velez went back to work. The senior completed a 19-yard pass to Delaughter and a 22-yarder to Romello Brinson to set up a first-and-goal at the 1, where Velez snuck it in for the score and a 20-0 lead.
“We felt very confident all night, even when we first came in here,” Velez said. “Scoring on that first drive the way we did was big, we couldn’t go three-and-out and give them momentum. Our defense is top notch. I give my props to them. They’re very well-coached, I’m just happy I get to celebrate with them.”
Northwestern extended its lead to 33-0 before the Golden Eagles punched one in on the final play of the first half, with Elan Sommala plunging in from one yard out. Naples couldn’t get much going in the second half, and when the Eagles finally had the ball deep in Northwestern territory, Karman Kinchens returned an interception 90 yards for a score to leave no doubt about the outcome.
“They were the best we played and they should be,” Naples coach Bill Kramer said “That’s why they’re in the state finals.”
Northwestern lined up nine defenders in the box all game to stop Naples’ vaunted rushing attack, and it certainly worked. Clemson-bound Chez Mellusi finished with 82 hard-fought yards on 18 carries, with much of that yardage coming after the Bulls built the big early lead.
“There’s just not much space,” Kramer said. “They’re really good players. And we can’t make errors. We got it going in spurts, but then we’d make errors that would put us behind the chains. … It was really hard to overcome.”