The old Dawgs learned some new tricks, and the top dogs kept on rolling.
That sums up Friday’s Class 6A high school football regional final games in Central Florida. In one matchup, DeLand reached the state semifinals for the first time in the school's 80-plus-year history. In another key game, Apopka showed it's still the team to beat in Central Florida. The Bulldogs will attempt to do just that when the two schools meet Friday to decide which one advances to a Dec. 19 state championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. The winner plays either Miramar or Miami Central for the state championship.
The Apopka story
The Blue Darters’ tale is one filled with dominance, perseverance and a bit of redemption. A state championship berth wouldn’t be the first for Apopka. In fact, the Blue Darters won the 6A state title in 2001. Apopka also played in the state semifinals in 2007. It was business as usual for Apopka this season, too. The team cruised to a 9-1 regular-season mark by dominating both sides of the ball. The Blue Darters outscored opponents 375-129 during the regular season and remained unbeaten until Olympia tripped them up 22-12 on Oct. 30.
The Blue Darters responded by scoring 49 or more points over the next four games, which included a 49-0 win against Boone in the Class 6A Regional Quarterfinals. Then Apopka had its toughest test, a matchup with an undefeated Dr. Phillips squad. The Panthers matched up well with the Blue Darters, and the game lived up to the hype. Apopka won 58-52 in a game that went into a fifth overtime.
Apopka (12-1) then had its lowest-scoring game of the season when the Blue Darters traveled to Treasure Coast last week. Apopka coach Rick Darlington credited his defense with winning the game. The defense shut down Treasure Coast (8-4) most of the night, and Apopka intercepted a Treasure Coast pass to thwart a fourth-quarter scoring drive. The Blue Darters scored the game’s only points when Keon Brooks threw a 23-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Henley Griffon was on the receiving end.
The DeLand story
Anyone who loves an underdog likely would cherish the Bulldogs’ story. Two years ago, DeLand went 0-10. In stepped new coach Kevin Pettis, fresh from much success at Dr. Phillips. Last year, the Bulldogs showed improvement. This year, though, the team shot to local prominence with a 9-0 start. Then disappointment struck.
The Bulldogs fell 21-14 to rival Mainland to lose both a bid for a perfect regular season and the district title, which Mainland claimed. The Bulldogs also lost their starting quarterback, Nick Ciciarelli, after he suffered complications from a blood clot in his arm.
How did DeLand respond? Pettis simply moved University of Florida recruit DeAnte Saunders to quarterback, and Saunders, known to most as "Pop" or "Poppa," went wild with long runs against a 10-0 Orange Park team.
Meanwhile, the DeLand defense dominated the Raiders in a 46-0 win. That set up a rematch with Mainland, which was forced to go without one of its top offensive players. Given its district championship, Mainland hosted again. This time, though, the Bulldogs cruised to a 26-0 win. It was the team’s eight shutout. The win, though, only brought another big challenge.
With heavy rain falling, DeLand had to face Winter Park on a muddy field. It was the Bulldogs’ fifth straight road game. Now, quite incredibly, the Bulldogs head to the road again. DeLand, which has won five games since hosting its last home game on Oct. 23, also faces its toughest test of the season.
DeLand’s defense has never been more dominant than it is now. For the past few weeks, the Bulldogs’ defenders have shut down nearly everything thrown at them. Their task this week will be threefold. DeLand must contain running backs Tom Smith and Quay Barnes. Meanwhile, it also must put pressure on quarterback Keon Brooks and keep him contained.
That’s a lot to ask from 11 guys, but this group is as ready as any for the challenge. The X factor might be how DeLand’s hard hits affect Apopka. Linebackers Mark Joyce, Parris Hayden, Dentrell Pate and Eldrick Bright all have more than 100 tackles this season, and Bright has 11 sacks. The defensive backfield, meanwhile, has plenty of speed with Saunders, Johnson and 6-foot-5 cornerback Dramon Grady in the mix.
Apopka, though, is nearly as stout on defense. With Bradley Gallon and Lo Wood in the mix, the team has plenty of balance and tackling ability. Although the Blue Darters have only one shutout this season, the team has allowed more than two touchdowns just three times in 12 games. The most recent time was in the wild affair with Dr. Phillips. That game showed that Apopka’s defense has some weaknesses, but it’s unclear whether the Bulldogs, who are a run-first, run-second and run-third sort of team, can expose them.
After all, Apopka’s lone loss was to an Olympia team that led Central Florida in nearly all passing categories. Dr. Phillips, too, had much of its success from throwing the ball. DeLand, however, has been a running team all season, and that’s unlikely to change. While Saunders has the ability to throw the ball, it's the way that he and running back Shontrelle Johnson have churned up the turf with their long runs that has paced the offense. That success also falls largely on the shoulders of the offensive line, which has dominated the line of scrimmage all season. Their ability to pass-block is certainly questionable.
DeLand’s long and glorious run ends with Apopka winning a close game. Each team is likely to struggle early against opposing defenses that clearly know how to prepare for a new challenge. The team that mixes in some new offensive plays likely takes the early lead. That’s most likely going to be Apopka, which has the balanced attack to mix the run and pass.
Apopka likely will lead by two scores by halftime, and that will leave Pettis with a tough decision. Does he throw something new at the Blue Darters or keep grinding away with the offense that had so much success in the team’s 13 previous games?
Pettis, a former offensive lineman, probably stays with his running game, and that’s likely the right call. At some point, Saunders and Johnson will find room to run. That should close the margin if the Bulldogs’ defense can hold up its end of the bargain. With home field and plenty of prior experience in close games, though, Apopka should put it away in the final five minutes of play.
State Championship games
This weekend also features a quartet of state championship games. In Class 2A, Cocoa faces Glades Central on Saturday at 7 p.m. In Class 2B, Bolles faces Tampa Catholic at 1 p.m. Saturday. In Class 1A, Jacksonville Trinity Christian faces Delray Beach American Heritage at 7 p.m. Friday. At 1 p.m. Friday, Central Florida is represented at the Citrus Bowl when South Daytona Warner Christian faces Glades Day. Visit MaxPreps.com this weekend for full coverage of the championship round games.
Other State Semifinals
In other state semifinal games, Lakeland hosts Tampa Plant in Class 5A. The winner plays Manatee or St. Thomas Aquinas on Dec. 18 for the state championship. Orlando Edgewater hosts Niceville in the Class 4A state semifinals. The winner plays either Armwood or Dwyer on Dec. 19 for the state championship. In Class 3A, Lake Wales and Belen Jesuit play Friday in one half of the state semifinals bracket. Jefferson and Pensacola play in the other half.