It wasn’t anything close to the 51-point beatdown they put on the same opponent a year ago in the same round, but Miami Central was just barely efficient enough on Friday night.
That’s because the two-time defending state champion and No. 12 nationally ranked Rockets made the three-hour trip north to Brevard County and overcame a penalty-plagued game to dispatch Palm Bay Heritage 20-12 in a Region 4-6A final at Heritage High School.
The game wasn’t clinched until the Rockets defense, which dominated all night, forced Heritage to turn the ball over on downs at midfield with just over a minute left in the game.
And with that, Central (12-1) advances to its sixth consecutive state semifinal and the Rockets will face another stiff challenge next week as they will travel even further, to Daytona Beach to take on undefeated Mainland, a team that battled them tough a year ago when they met in Miami in a state semifinal game.
“A lot of penalties tonight, way too many but fortunately we were able to overcome that and get out of here with the win,” said Central head coach Roland Smith, whose team was nailed 19 times for 176 penalty yards. “But we’ll definitely need to get that cleaned up next week because you can’t always overcome something like that.”
Smith’s team will be looking to carve themselves in the history books next week as the Rockets hope to become just the fourth team in state history (Belle Glade Glades Day, Pahokee and St. Thomas Aquinas) to play in at least five consecutive state championship games.
The Rockets defense was the story of the night. After watching talented Heritage quarterback Daeshawn Mills torch Naples for 348 rushing yards a week ago on tape, they knew who they had to stop and did it, holding Mills to just 34 yards on 15 carries.
And with Mills shut down, Heritage (8-4), a program in just its sixth year, had no other answer as the Panthers managed just 97 yards in total offense on the night.
“We knew who we had to go after and stop tonight and we did a good job on him,” said Rockets defensive end Keivonnis Davis who sacked Mills twice including a big one on Heritage’s last gasp drive. “When we watched him on tape, we saw how elusive he was but we did a good job out there tonight of playing our gaps and filling our lanes and he wasn’t going anywhere on us.”
Perhaps it was their late arrival (the buses didn’t arrive until 40 minutes before kickoff) but the Rockets suffered through a sluggish first quarter and the Panthers made them pay by putting together a 53-yard drive, aided by a pair of 15-yard penalties to take a 6-0 lead when Josh Gaines, on a fourth-and-goal at the 2, scored on the first play of the second quarter. The point-after was no good.
That was the wakeup call the Rockets needed as they answered with an 89-yard, 13 play drive to take a 7-6 lead when quarterback Jerrod Thomas found Lenwood Joyner for an 11-yard scoring pass with 6:44 left in the half.
Central got a big break less than a minute before halftime when, right after running back Cedric Miller fumbled it away on the Heritage 16, the Rockets got it right back when the Panthers fumbled with 43 seconds left.
Three plays later, Anthony Jones scored from the wildcat formation from three yards out to make it 13-6 at the half.
The Rockets took the second-half kickoff and rolled 64 yards in nine plays. Jonesbolted 35 yards for the score to make it 20-6.
MIAMI CENTRAL 20,
PALM BAY HERITAGE 12
PBH-Gaines 2 run (kick failed)
CEN- Joyner 11 pass from Thomas (Piraquive kick)
CEN- Jones 3 run (kick failed)
CEN- Jones 35 run (Piraquive kick)
HER- Gaines 20 pass from Mills (pass failed)
Rushing (att-yds) -- CEN: Thomas 5-16, Jones 13-72, Miller 22-138. PBH: King 3-4, Gaines 13-9, Mills 15-34.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- CEN: Thomas 10-14-0, 126. PBH: Mills 3-8-1, 50.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- CEN: Jones 2-21, Phillips 5-40, Joyner 3-65. PBH: Ribot 1-7, Gaines 1-20, Bartley 1-23.