For Polk County's Fort Meade High School, this game is almost an annual family reunion. The Miners have been in the state championship game in four of the past five years, dropping a 17-7 contest to Jacksonville Trinity Christian last December. One Polk County school absent from the fray is Frostproof, which was eliminated in the first round.
Here's a look at some of the top games this weekend:
Pompano Beach Ely at Orlando Edgewater 6A
Coach Bill Gierke, a legend in the high school coaching ranks of Central Florida, has taken Edgewater to the state title game the past two seasons. The fact that Gierke has Edgewater in position to make it three in a row speaks volumes of his ability to build a program. Early in the season, the Eagles lost starting quarterback Mike Dunn just prior to their big game against Mainland. Mainland rolled all over Edgewater in that game but the Eagles bounced back to win seven in a row. Edgewater is led by All-American offensive lineman Matt Hardrick. At 6-5, 330, this behemoth is one of the top drive blockers in the country. He was also pretty good in pass protection in the two times that I have seen him play. The Eagles also have a very good fullback to run behind Hardrick in 6-2, 210 Antonio Turner, who doubles as a reliable receiver out of the backfield.
Ely lost a couple of early games to highly ranked Deerfield Beach (9-0) and St. Thomas Aquinas (8-1). Ely has a solid passing game triggered by Carlton Jackson (6'3 190), who has offers from the likes of Ohio State and North Carolina State. He is a pretty solid passer who has gotten rave reviews for his play in a new system. Mammoth defensive tackle and University of Florida commitment Ronnie Wilson (6-4, 340) controls the line of scrimmage. If his game is on, Wilson will be hard to move the ball up the middle on. He also plays on the O-Line and can drive a defender to Osceola county if need be. The Eagles will find it difficult to throw on cover corner Walter McFadden. The 6-0 175-pounder has tremendous speed and is a gifted defender. He's also a threat at wide receiver for Ely. Strong safety Rodney Etienne is supposedly one of the top hitters in south Florida. He has committed to Central Florida.
Miami Killian vs Miami Carol City @ Traz Powell Stadium 6A
One year ago, Carol City All-American linebacker Willie Williams seemingly auditioned for the role of Superman in the state title game. He was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall linemen in a single bound. He obviously stopped well short of anything mild-mannered.
However, Williams destroyed the evil Edgewater unit that unsuccessfully tried to deny him. He even broke the arm of their quarterback. Williams is gone, but many of his teammates aren't, including Kenneth Phillips, who has escalated last year's All-State performance to unanimous All-America for Coach Walt Frazier's Chiefs.
These giants battled in the state semifinals last season with Carol City edging Killian 3-0 for the trip to Gainesville. Fast forward one year where Phillips has assumed role of intimidator in the Carol City defense. The 6-2, 195-pounder brings a lot of pop, and he's very tough against the run even though both times I've seen him play, he has had to run down the football because teams make it a point to avoid him.
This year, Killian has a phenom of its own in the defensive backfield. Coach Billy Rolle's defense is led by All-American Demetrice Morley. The Magnificent Morley (6-0, 175) is rock solid in coverage, tough as nails when tackling, and reads as well as any DB in Florida. Both Morley and Phillips are rated among the 20 best players in the nation. Killian also has an outstanding cover corner in Antwan Cox. He is solid in deep routes.
Speed. Athleticism. Quickness. College coaches drool over games like these. Miami-Dade puts athletes into colleges like the Chinese put goods into Wal-Mart.
Daytona Beach Mainland at Lakeland 5A
Defending state champion Mainland took class 5A by storm a year ago when they defeated powerful Naples 24-13 for the 5A championship. A strong nucleus of that title team is back for a shot at a repeat. Mainland (10-2) has so many top D-1 prospects that Coach Maronto is considering a coaches concession area at the Buccaneers practice facility to raise additional funds for the program. Defensive back Avery Atkins, quarterback Jonathan Garner, tight end Brian Ellis, defensive lineman Matt Lewis, and offensive lineman Eddie Tabasky are legitimate all-state performers. The All-American Atkins (5-11, 180) and Garner (6-4, 208) committed to the Gators late last summer. Ellis (6-4 240) is another outstanding prospect who the Gators are courting.
Lakeland (13-0) hasn't had recent success in the playoffs, but the Dreadnaughts last appearance in the state championship game (1999) was one to remember. Lakeland blasted a highly regarded Springfield Rutherford squad, 45-12. Rutherford came into the game with All-American linebacker/tight end Will Witherspoon who now stars for the Carolina Panthers. The Rams also featured a small quarterback with a big arm named Blake Hardin, who had won the quarterback award at the Florida football camp. It simply didn't faze Lakeland. Kendrick Stewart (6- 280) leads this year's version of the Dreadnaughts. He has surprisingly good quickness for a guy his size, and he knows what to do once he gets off of the ball.
This should be a terrific game. Mainland is a big play offense with a big play defense led by an abundance of talented athletes on both sides of the ball. For Mainland to win, they have to involve Ellis early and often. Lakeland makes very few mistakes offensively. They too have a playmaker in quarterback Chris Griffin. The Dreadnaughts do everything well. Defensively, the players do something that you don't always see. This coachable bunch is always in position and always makes the tackle. If Lakeland can take an early lead they might rattle Mainland.
Sarasota Riverview at Ft. Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas 5A
Coach John Sprague has the Riverview Rams poised for their first state championship game appearance in 14 years. Riverview has never won a state title game, dropping contests to Pensacola Pine Forest, 30-27, in 1988 and to Ft. Walton Beach Choctawhatcheee, 13-10, in 1990, three point losses each time. Three is the number of championships that Coach George Smith has won at St. Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas averages 257.8 yards of total offense. Those aren't exactly eye-popping numbers. Quarterback Mike Dougherty has only thrown for two touchdowns. Wide receiver Richard Goodman is one of the better wide receivers in Broward County. He has 27 receptions for 339 yards and three scores. The three-horse stable of backs includes Bobby Crawford (514 yards), Marcel Archer (458), and Calvin Harris (332). Crawford and Archer average over five yards per carry. Harris and Goodman are the leading scorers. Crawford is the team's second leading receiver. Placekicker Joe Surgeon is very accurate.
The Rams offense is a run-oriented group that takes care of the football. Linebacker JD Hunter and his teammates will have to keep Aquinas from throwing one over the top. There is no question that Riverview has enough speed to hang with the Aquinas wide receivers, but they can't get fooled by the play action.
Lakeland Lake Gibson at Pensacola 4A
Lake Gibson played in one of last year's most exciting state championship games, falling 29-21 to Armwood. Coach Keith DeMyer is one step away from having a return trip to Gainesville. The Braves are led again by quarterback Matt Grothe. The 6-1, 188-pound senior has a pretty strong arm and played well in last year's state championship game. Grothe has committed to South Florida. The Braves learned a valuable lesson last weekend. Don't let up. After building a 23-0 halftime lead over Clermont East Ridge, the Braves had to hold on for a 26-20 victory. The Lake Gibson secondary bent but didn't break. Lake Gibson pulled down three interceptions to secure the victory. Grothe doubles in the secondary as well. Also, of concern to Coach DeMyer were 17 penalties that cost the Braves 201 yards.
Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels. It is also home to the Pensacola High School air force, a passing attack that leaves opponents lying on the ground. Pensacola has a tremendous quarterback in Adron Chambers, who has committed to Coach Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State. Chambers is an outstanding athlete who figures to give the Braves fits. Coach Mike Bennett's attack involves just about anybody in a Tigers uniform. For example, eight different receivers caught passes in last weekend's 21-10 victory over Ft. Walton Beach. The Tigers tailback John Ellis caught 15 passes on the evening. The leading receiver was Cornelius Wells, who hauled in three catches for 65 yards and a score.
Miami Washington at Tampa Armwood 4A
Armwood is loaded again. The Hawks feature a solid offensive front, bruising running back in Kalvin Bailey, and the tremendous leg of kicker Reid Macko. Bailey (6-0, 245) is a monster to bring down on the quick hits up the middle. Rated as one of the country's top big backs, Bailey averaged nearly 10 yards a carry against state ranked Middleton in their regular season match-up. I've seen the big man play twice and once he gets beyond the line of scrimmage, it's a freak show, because he's someone smaller will either get run over or take tremendous punishment getting him to the turf. Armwood defensive back R.J. Anderson (5-11, 165) is yet another top prospect.
Washington is a quick, athletic team that just kills opponents with its speed. The Tornadoes dumped a couple of Space Coast teams (Astronaut and Merritt Island) the past two playoff games. Quarterback Alwan Lee completed 17 for 24 for 188 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions in last weekend's thrilling win over Merritt Island. Last season, Armwood bounced Washington from the playoffs with a jolting 44-14 smack. Many of the Washington players circled this game when the playoffs began.