YOUNG STARS ON BIG STAGE
Orlando-area state finalists are thriving behind impact of underclassmen. This weekend they hit the prime-time stage with championships on the line.
Apopka, Edgewater and Jones have combined to make history for Orange County high school football this fall.
And it won’t be a surprise to see all three of those teams pick up where they left off next year after playing for Florida High School Athletic Association state championships this weekend.
They have each benefited from experienced seniors to make it to this point. But it’s the development of seasoned underclassmen that’s helped spur the 2019 success, and likely will enable those programs to continue competing at a high level moving forward. Apopka (12-1) faces Miami Columbus (10-4) on Friday in the Class 8A state final at 7 p.m. Jones (13-1) plays Miami Northwestern (12-2) in 5A on Saturday at noon and Edgewater (13-1) takes on Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (13-0) later that night in 7A at 7 p.m.
All games will be played at Daytona Stadium, with live online broadcasts provided by Spectrum Sports. Admission is $15 at the gate. Parking is $10.
“We’ve got a storybook season going on here,” fourth-year Jones coach Elijah Williams said. “There’s not one Jones kid on campus that’s used to losing now. The standard has been set for the underclassman.”
Tigers seniors such as standout running back Avarius Sparrow and defensive back Dominick Hill, a South Carolina commit, will graduate as the program’s most successful class after losing just four regular season games over four years. They leave behind a blueprint of success for others to follow.
“These seniors are great kids that are perfect examples for the underclassman,” Williams said.
Williams points to junior offensive guards Jaquez Young and Antuan Wells as leaders on that side of the ball alongside junior tackle Javonte Gardner, who stands at 6-foot-4, 315 pounds.
The Tigers, who lost three underclassmen to injury on defense this season, are allowing just 12 points per game as a team.
Junior defensive back Delmontre Pryor has tallied 59 total tackles, three interceptions and a forced fumble this season. Freshman linebacker Malik Bryant has 63 total tackles and four sacks while junior linebacker Darrian Hawkins ranks fourth with 70 total tackles.
“There is no age requirement for leadership. I say it all the time.” Edgewater coach Cameron Duke said. “When you’re building a program, you understand that it’s not just for that year. We’ve seen great leadership in all of our classes on the varsity team and we feel like the future is bright.”
Junior receivers Christian Leary and Tommi Hill have been part of big plays throughout the year for the Eagles on offense. The unit should benefit from an additional year of experience between quarterback Canaan Mobley and center Devin Hevener, both of whom are juniors.
Sophomore receiver Jeremiah Connelly, the younger brother of senior standout running back Isaiah Connelly, is in line for an increased role next season. Isaiah, who has rushed for 2,161 yards and 24 touchdowns, is part of a senior class that went 0-10 as freshmen in 2016 before Duke and his staff arrived.
Hill, who doubles as a receiver and cornerback, has reached the end zone nine times. He ranks second on the team with four interceptions. Leary has accounted for 14 touchdowns — scoring eight times on receptions and six times on rushes.
Like Leary on offense, junior linebacker Deshawn Troutman offers Edgewater versatility on the other side of the ball.
Troutman is tied with senior Shary Jefferson for the team lead in total tackles (89), including 11 for a loss. Junior safety Kevin Butler is third on the team with 59 tackles.
Strength on defense is what helped Apopka to overcome injuries in the offensive backfield during what’s been an impressive run under first-year coach Jeff Rolson.
Versatile quarterback Jaquan Lowman and blocking back Curtis Spivey are two of four junior starters on offense, along with linemen Josh Campbell and Anquawn Pringle. They’ve each helped keep the clock rolling in games out of a run-heavy singlewing package.
With senior nose guard and Georgia commit Jalen Carter demanding so much attention, thanks to a 6-foot-4, 295-pound frame, Apopka’s underclassmen have been put in position to build a veteran-like presence.
Sophomore linebackers Travion Barnes and Josiah Robinson come from football families. Both are described as physically strong and fast athletes who “play like upperclassman,” according to Rolson.
They join cornerback Nikai Martinez, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the state semifinals, as players that started last year as freshmen.
Robinson forced a game-changing fumble against Seminole in the region finals and Barnes is a unanimous All-Metro West Conference selection. Freshman defensive end Kaven Call, who had two sacks in the state semifinals, joins junior safety Jaquan Harris as having emerged as key starters for a unit that’s held opposing teams to 15 points or less 11 times.
“[Harris] has come out of nowhere to become as solid as anyone we have in the secondary,” Rolson said.
It’s a familiar theme for the area’s 2019 state finalists. One that will likely continue long after the lights go out in Daytona on Saturday night.
Sophomores Jeremiah Connelly (14) of Edgewater and Jones’ James Weatherspoon (27) are among many underclassmen making a big impact for state finalists this season.
Apopka will appear in its fifth football state championship game on Friday at Daytona Stadium when it takes on Miami Columbus.