Posted: 12:18 am Saturday, December 6th, 2008
By Jason Lieser
The Raiders were one of the most dominant teams in the area this year, going undefeated in the regular season under a new coach. Injuries hit them hard at the end, though, and Glades Central made an early exit in the second round of the playoffs.
Here’s a look back at the Raiders’ 2008 campaign:
2008: 11-1 (regional semifinals)
2007: 11-2 (regional finals)
Big wins: Palm Beach Central, Dwyer, Pahokee, Belen Jesuit
2008 Opening Day starters graduating: 8 on offense (entire offensive line, TE, RB, WR); 7 on defense (2 DEs, DT, LBs, CBs).
What went right?
Quite a bit, obviously. First-year coach Jessie Hester changed personnel and the overall culture in his rookie season. The most noticeable change was moving Rantavious Wooten from quarterback to wide receiver, where he led the area in yardage (909) and touchdown catches (13). Wooten switched his verbal commitment from LSU to Georgia during the season.
The receiving corps featured six players who could have started on most area teams, and that group will be strong again next season. Look out for junior-to-be Kevin Benjamin in 2009.
Hester picked junior L.J. Thomas over one of his returning passers, Kentavious McCoy, and Thomas delivered a sparkling performance. Thomas led all big-school quarterbacks in passing yards (2,022) and tied Boca Raton’s Eddie Sullivan for the area lead in touchdown passes with 26 during the regular season.
“He grasped stuff quickly,” Hester said of Thomas. “You only have to tell that kid something one time. He’s the only kid on the team who was able to do that.”
Thomas benefited from an all-senior offensive line, anchored by Florida State commit Henry Orelus, that was easily the area’s best. Behind that fortress, the Raiders piled up 3,709 yards of total offense and averaged 38 points per game. Running backs Antonio McCloude (771 yards, eight touchdowns) and Antwan Chilsom led a dominant ground game.
“Those kids had been together for four years, and it’s not often you have five seniors on the line at a high school,” Hester said of the offensive line.
The Raiders’ defense was even better, and it was spectacular in Glades Central’s 19-14 win over Pahokee in the Muck Bowl. The Raiders had dropped two straight Muck Bowls before their defense held Pahokee to 168 total yards and 14 points, the Blue Devils’ second-lowest mark. Glades Central had five takeaways in that game.
Even though he did not lead the Raiders to a championship, the community and the school were thrilled by the Muck Bowl win. Glades Central’s senior class was in danger of becoming the first to graduate without beating Pahokee.
“We knew we were better than those guys, but there was a psychological barrier,” Hester said. “We knew we had a better team as long as the kids performed.”
On the season, the Raiders yielded 1,365 total yards, best among big schools, and nobody allowed fewer points (65). Pretty good for a team that allowed 46 points to Miami Central in an exhibition game in May.
“Those guys, from Day 1, worked hard because of the spring game,” Hester said. “They wanted to prove people wrong.”
Hester seemed to diffuse any doubts about his coaching ability, despite having no prior experience, and said he will return for a second season.
What went wrong?
Despite showing dramatic improvement compared to last season, the Raiders did not go as deep into the playoffs as they did under Willie Snead last season.
Injuries were a big factor. Glades Central was loaded with athletes — even on the second and third string at many positions — but appeared to lack depth on the o-line and at quarterback. Thomas broke his collarbone in the Muck Bowl, ending his season, and the Raiders lost lineman Jim Knowles, too.
“Defensively we had enough depth where we could lose guys here and there; offensively, we didn’t have that luxury,” Hester said. “We definitely couldn’t lose the quarterback, and we couldn’t lose an offensive lineman.”
The Raiders survived their opening playoff game, a 25-6 win over Belen Jesuit, but the offense went flat in Round 2. In its 13-6 loss at Monsignor Pace, Glades Central mustered 149 total yards, picked up just six first downs and completed 8 of 27 passes.
“We still should have won that ball game, but we needed everybody healthy,” Hester said.
That lack of depth could lead to issues for the Raiders next year unless the younger players improve substantially in the off-season. Thomas should be healthy in time for spring practices, but Alanda Shaw needs to develop as a viable back-up. The offensive and defensive lines will need new stars, too.