It was perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions all season long when it came to high school football in Miami-Dade County.
Who will make it to Orlando: Central or Carol City?
Never did we imagine that the answer to that question would be “neither.”
But late Tuesday afternoon on their field bordering NW 12th Ave and 71st street stood the Nrothwestern Bulls, getting ready for Saturday’s Class 6A state championship game.
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A team that walked off the field on Oct. 19 as 38-10 losers to Central and fallen to 3-5 late in the season. A team that needed to win its last two regular season games just to make the playoffs.
Orlando? State championship game? With Carol City or Central standing in the way? That may as well have been on Mars.
But on Tuesday, with numerous college scouts dotting the field including University of Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, keeping an eye on one of his top recruits, defensive end Samuel Brooks, the defending Class 6A state champions were doing something nobody thought they would still be doing: practicing.
This Saturday afternoon will bring a very unexpected opportunity to defend that state title when they take on the very same team they beat last year, Seffner Armwood, at 3 p.m. at Camping World Stadium.
“As bad as things were — and it was a rough go — we always had the confidence that we would be able to get back to Orlando,” said head coach Max Edwards. “The first time we played Carol City and Central, we were struggling but we actually hung tough with both teams early on so I knew that if the kids could just stick together and start stringing some wins, that things would come together and that’s exactly what happened.”
Added Brooks: “There was a lot of doubt at 3-5 and it was tough around here. Nobody thought we would be able to pull it together and make it to where we are. We could have turned on each other and that would’ve been it but we’re not only family around here, we’re a tight family. We all kind of leaned on each other and found a way to get this thing turned around and shocked the world.”
Northwestern started its season off solidly enough with a nice road win over Miramar, but then things went south and quickly.
Back-to-back losses to Columbus and South Dade followed and then came an anticipated lopsided win over Hialeah-Miami Lakes and then an impressive 47-21 rout of Booker T. Washington. So the ship appeared to be right going as a three-game gauntlet of IMG Academy, Carol City and Central awaited.
But not only did the Bulls lose all three, but none of the three games were remotely close and, despite the fact that the five losses were against five very good teams, Bull Nation was grumbling.
Then came an Oct. 26 game against Norland and the Bulls actually found themselves trailing 14-10 going to the fourth quarter and facing extinction when it came to the 2018 season. It was then that they rallied to beat the Vikings 24-14 and then took care of Jackson in the Soul Bowl the following week 34-10 to at least salvage a No. 6 seed and postseason berth.
“We just needed to win a few games, get a little bit of a winning streak going so the kids could start feeling good about themselves,” said Edwards.
Perhaps the best thing that happened to the Bulls then was that they had to take off upstate to play their first two playoff games on the road. First was a 31-16 win over Daytona Beach Mainland followed by a 31-19 victory over Palm Bay Heritage.
“I guess we kind of took the backroad in,” quarterback Isaiah Velez said with a smile. “We still had some tough teams but when we went on the road traveling to those games, I think that really brought us closer together and things started to click and jell.“
It also gave Central and Carol City an opportunity to beat each other up in a fiercely contested regional semifinal. When the Rockets pulled off the big win, perhaps Northwestern was set up perfectly to swoop right in and catch Central a little bit drained, flat and overconfident.
When Velez led his offense downfield in the final minute and threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 30 seconds left for a 19-15 win, it sent shockwaves around the state. The designated “Big Two” in Carol City and Central, were done. Bull Pride lived on.
“It’s pretty amazing for sure and feels awesome,” said running back Jacquez Stewart. “Our coach always tells us that we’re family and when you’re family, you stick together through the tough times and that’s what we did.”
“I’m kind of excited that it happened this way,” said defensive tackle and Pittsburgh commit Calijah Kancey. “Because there’s nothing like overcoming adversity and rising up when everybody else has given up on you.”