Posted: 2:39 am Sunday, December 12th, 2010
By Jeff Greer
ORLANDO — I’ve got a lot to write about Cocoa’s stunning 14-13 win over Glades Central in the Class 2A championship game. And some ridiculously early predictions to make about next season.
But first, with this being my last high school football game of the 2010 season, I just want to reflect for a moment on my first season covering Palm Beach County football. In a word, it was awesome. Absolutely worth the long days and working weekends.
When I took this job back in July, everyone kept telling me how big football was in Florida, especially in Palm Beach County. They weren’t lying. There were 7,013 people at the Citrus Bowl for Glades Central’s game on Saturday night, and I’d say at least 60 percent of them were Glades Central fans. One Glades Central coach even said, “I hope the last one out of Belle Glade turned the lights out” as he and I looked up at the crowd. The Glades Day and American Heritage fans showed up loud and proud at their championship games on Friday, too.
All year it was like that, a nonstop flow of passionate fandom from around the county. Sure, Matt and I took some lumps along the way, but we fully enjoyed interacting with such an involved fan base. That’s what makes it fun.
What a fantastic place to learn how to become a better reporter and writer.
Tonight’s game was fun, too. It lived up to its billing. Cocoa came into the game riding a 37-game winning streak, owners of back-to-back state titles (one in Class 3A in 2008 and last year’s 2A win over Glades Central). Glades Central came into the game being … well … Glades Central, owners of six state titles and all kinds of tradition.
It was a tense, exciting game, where two big special teams plays decided the whole thing. So here are my five takeaways from tonight’s exhilarating contest.
1. Raiding the Cocoa backfield. I worry that how I phrase this won’t tell enough of the story, but Cocoa’s famous rushing attack did nothing all night. The Tigers had four runs for 10 or more yards. They ran the ball 41 times for 131 yards, a 3.2 yards-per-carry average. They were bottled up all night.
Now, I wouldn’t say Glades Central manhandled Cocoa in the trenches. I think the real reason for the stifling was the speed of Glades Central’s linebacking corps. Jatavis Brown, Dominique Gibson and Don’Kevious Johnson — all juniors (more on that later) — showed incredible foot speed to close off the edges and shoot the gaps. Cocoa didn’t have too many rushes for negative yardage (2) but it never got chunks of 4, 5 or 6 yards to really chip away at Glades Central.
It was that defensive speed and sure tackling that had many of us thinking there was no way Cocoa would win. The Tigers just couldn’t do anything offensively for much of the night.
“They swarmed and they did well,” Glades Central coach Jessie Hester said.
But then there was the kickoff. The kickoff. Gibson squibbed a bounding ball to the Cocoa 31-yard line, where Antwan Lee picked it up. If you followed the blob of players running toward Lee, it looked like a swarm of ants about to encircle a meal. The problem with that was there was wide-open field straight ahead of Lee. He took off. I couldn’t tell if he was touched by anyone, but Lee broke away from the pack in a hurry, taking the kick back 69 yards for a score.
“That really was the turning point of it all,” Hester said. “We should’ve made sure that our kids understood their lane responsibilities. We had a couple kids get out of their lane responsibilities and the kid hit up the middle real quick on us and we had nobody back there to catch him.”
It was the opening play of the second half, and it sucked out all the momentum Glades Central’s defense had built up.
“We lost sight of what the goal was,” said receiver Jaqavein Oliver. “I guess we thought that we could lie back because we were winning.”
The defensive domination continued after that, with Glades Central forcing another three-and-out after the Raiders’ own drive stalled at the Cocoa 5-yard line. But the two final Cocoa drives made up for the Tigers’ night-long struggles. After Glades Central took a hard-earned 13-7 lead, Cocoa’s only pass of the night, a little flip out into the flat to running back Devonte Jones, went for 22 yards and put Cocoa on the move. The Tigers mustered up runs of 7, 12 and 6 on the drive, but none was bigger than Jones’ 2-yard dive on fourth-and-1 at the Glades Central 27.
Had they stopped Cocoa there, the Raiders probably would’ve won.
“When crunch time came, we had to finish the deal,” Oliver said, “and we couldn’t do it.”
2. Feasting on freedom. There was all kinds of open space in the middle of the field for Glades Central’s offense. All kinds. More space than a burnt-out sugarcane field in late November.
Cocoa varied between 3-3-5 and 3-2-6 sets all night, with man coverage and one or two safeties helping over the top. The safeties were way back, sometimes 20-25 yards down field. And that open space helped Glades Central connect on medium-range patterns all night. The Raiders were 8-of-14 on third downs and converted a big fourth down in the third quarter by taking advantage of all that space.
Those conversion rates resulted from two things: quarterback Jamarious Rowley‘s fast drops and releases and his receivers’ crisp slants, drags and outs that developed quickly.
But toward the end of the game, Cocoa started jamming Glades Central’s receivers, disrupting the quick routes to give the pass rushers some time to get to Rowley. Cocoa eliminated the running lanes that Rowley found in the first three quarters and swallowed him up when it mattered the most.
“We knew that they were gonna try to play deep and wide,” Hester said, “but we just weren’t able to get the protection that we needed for the quarterback to throw a completion over the middle. We had some success but we couldn’t do it on a consistent basis.”
3. Missed opportunities. The 2010 championship game will be forever marred by Glades Central’s missed opportunities. Two drives stalled inside the Cocoa 30-yard line, with one even ending at the Cocoa 5. The Raiders had four drives that went 46 yards or more, but only scored on two.
The first stalled drive ended at the Cocoa 28. The game was still scoreless, but Glades Central had driven 69 yards and eaten up 4:29 off the clock. Rowley’s 39-yard toss to Davonte Allen, who had his man beaten, was the biggest play of the drive. Cocoa rushed six, leaving Allen in one-on-one coverage, which he easily busted.
But Cocoa clamped down after Glades Central moved the ball to Cocoa 29. On third-and-4, Rowley had no time and was dropped quickly after a 1-yard scramble. On fourth-and-3, Jaime Wilson ran a quick out and had some space, but Rowley just missed him to his left.
The second drive stopped at the Cocoa 5. That one hurt more. Glades Central drove 75 yards on 17 plays, taking 7:10 off the clock. That was when the open space that I referenced above was so obvious. Rowley hit Wilson for 10, Baker for 6, Oliver for 9, Allen for 17 and Wilson again for 12. Wilson’s second catch was a driving cradle of a fourth-down pass to Rowley’s left.
The Raiders got a fresh set of downs at the 11, but two runs went for just 6 yards. On third down, Rowley tried to a keeper, but his lanes were closed for construction. He threw into double coverage on fourth down as Oliver ran a slant to the goal line.
That’s 11 minutes and 35 seconds, 27 plays and 144 yards that didn’t produce a single point for Glades Central.
4. Tough to swallow. This loss will be a tough one to stomach, particularly for Rowley, who was a linebacker on last year’s Glades Central team that lost to Cocoa 27-13 in the same Class 2A title game. Rowley moved to quarterback after the 2009 season and put his heart and soul into his new position. It took some time to grow into his role, but by season’s end, he was a reliable, crisp quarterback who made solid decisions.
I overheard someone in the press box, an hour after the game, saying, “That Rowley kid can throw. He puts some zip on the ball. Everything is crisp.”
He was sacked four times in this one, but two of them hurt the most. On Glades Central’s last possession, the Raiders took over at their own 20. Rowley’s first pass was a clean-looking ball to Wilson, who ran an 8-yard out. Wilson collected the pass and made his way past the 30-yard line for a first down.
But then it got ugly. Rowley had Oliver open to his right but didn’t see him in time. Cocoa dropped Rowley for an 8-yard loss. The next snap, Rowley didn’t even have a chance to look down field. He was dragged down for a 13-yard loss. At that point, it was third and a mile.
Rowley’s Hail Mary attempt was picked off by Datarius Allen at the Glades Central 47. Two first downs later, ball game. And that, my friends, was the end of your 2010 Palm Beach County football season.
5. Looking ahead to next year. It’s fitting that the last game I covered in 2010 was Glades Central, because I fully expect that to be the case next year. Regardless of what class and district they end up in, the Raiders are clear and away the team to beat in 2011.
Glades Central returns almost its entire defense: Brown, Gibson, Johnson and David Bailey at linebacker and Crevon LeBlanc, William Likley and John Brockman at defensive back. It will be hard to replace the speed of defensive linemen Robert Way and Delbert Clarke and the sheer power of Purvis Nixon but something tells me Central can do it.
On offense, the Raiders will have Wilson and running back Aaron Baker back. They’ll graduate three starting linemen in Jeffery Philibert, Brandon Gray and Corey Graham, but there is depth at the line positions, too. Coaches told LeBlanc he’d play some slot receiver next year, and juniors Jems Richemond and Jonathan Whitest will get a chance to step in. The biggest question is, yet again, at quarterback: Will Greg Davis step into that role?
While Glades Central will be the clear-cut No. 1 team coming into 2011, I expect a few others to have solid groups of their own: Seminole Ridge, American Heritage, Dwyer, Lake Worth, Atlantic, Glades Day and Jupiter Christian. Each of those teams either has a great core of players coming back or such a solid coaching staff that they can win almost every year.
There are several teams that I am keeping my eye on, namely Pahokee, King’s Academy, Cardinal Newman, Boca, Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter.
Of course all these predictions are incredibly early, what with transfers and other kinds of shifting that can so greatly change a football program. So in the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open for recruiting news and updates and much, much more.
It’s been an awesome season. Let’s do it again next fall, shall we?