Trailing by eight points at halftime and with a hostile crowd at Daytona Beach’s Municipal Stadium taunting them, Keir Thomas pulled his Central Rockets teammates together inside the locker room and delivered a pretty simple message.
“I kept them calm and told them we were going to be fine,” the 6-3, 235-pound defensive end and team captain said.
With the poise of a team that has been to five consecutive state championship games and won four of them, the Rockets scored 27 consecutive points in the second half and blasted past Daytona Beach Mainland 33-21 to win the Region 4-6A final.
Central (10-2) will host Naples (11-1) in a Class 6A state semifinal next Friday night at Traz Powell Stadium. The Rockets will look to join Belle Glade Glades Day (1982-88) and Pahokee (2003-08) as the only programs in the state to advance to six consecutive state finals.
“We have a great accomplishment in front of us, but we can’t overlook this team,” Rockets coach Roland Smith said. “Coach Kramer is a guy who coached in Dade County before. We have to prepare for him. We start preparing for him [Saturday]. We’re excited about this game.”
One of the things Smith will certainly bring up in film study is penalties. The Rockets were flagged 23 times for 188 yards — including two that wiped out touchdown passes on the same drive late in the first half.
But all of the yellow hankies being tossed around by the Duval County officials sent in from the state didn’t stop the Rockets from knocking off Mainland (11-2) for the third consecutive year in the playoffs.
Senior receiver Darnell Salomon, who had only two catches in his previous five games combined, stepped up with leading receiver Jenard Phillips out with a sprained right ankle.
Salomon caught two touchdown passes in the third quarter — the first on a 33-yard catch and dash to trim Mainland’s lead to 14-12, and the second on a third-and-goal toss from quarterback Jerrod Thomas that put Central up 26-14.
Junior tailback Kywan Smith initially put Central ahead 19-14 on a 15-yard touchdown run with 7:17 left in the third quarter. Smith ran for a season-high 127 yards and two scores on 14 carries before leaving midway through the third quarter with a bruised ankle.
“We needed that from Darnell because Jenard was hurt in the last game and we told him, ‘Each game, each week, any receiver can step up,’ ” Smith said. “And [Friday] was Darnell Solomon’s night.
“Kywan’s OK. He just got banged up a little bit and we just wanted to make sure we rested him, and put the young kids in late.”
Central’s defense sacked Mainland quarterback Denzel Houston five times and held the Buccaneers to only two first downs in the second half. Star tailback Adrian Killins had 3 yards on 10 carries total.
“It feels great to play Central Rockets football and keep the legacy going,” Thomas said. “[Houston] is a great player. We just had to keep him in the pocket. We did that way better in the second half and that helped us a lot.”
Said Smith: “We showed great poise to come out in the second half and dominate the game from the opening kickoff. We stopped them on defense. Offense got on the field and scored touchdowns. We just had to keep our composure. I thought we were a little jittery coming out and wasn’t relaxed.
”When we play Rockets defense, that’s what happens in the second half.”