Sports Editor

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LHS Jaelen Ray

Liberty quarterback Jaelen Ray accounted for 45 touchdowns himself last season with his arm and legs.

Keeping score this past football season around Osceola County almost involved the use of a calculator.

Liberty, with a big-play quarterback and potent running and receiving games, led Central Florida with 44.5 points per game.

Harmony (37 per game), Osceola (33) and Gateway (29), all playoff teams, lit it up this year. Even St. Cloud, who was 4-6 last year, averaged over 30 points per game.

With offensive weapons all over the field — on every field — picking an Osceola News-Gazette Offensive Player of the Year for 2018 is next to impossible.

If we tell you that Liberty quarter Jaelen Ray, or Gateway running back Phillip Bangura is, then we have to say that Osceola running back Dwayne McGee, or St. Cloud slotback Seth Johnson, or Harmony wide receiver Caeleb Bass is not.

Those skill players, combined with parts of offensive lines that blocked and protected for the area’s best rushing and passing attacks, would form an All-Star team that would run roughshod over similar squads from places like Orange, Seminole and Lake Counties and, this year, would give Polk County’s best one heck of a run for its money.

And, the offensive talent ran deep across the county. A total of 14 players ran for 400 yards this season, and while no passers hit the 1,900 yard mark (like three did in 2017), four threw for 1,000 including St. Cloud’s Garhett King despite not starting until midway through the season.

Here is a spotlight of Osceola County’s best offensive weapons in 2018:

Liberty QB Jaelen Ray: The county’s best player among a consensus of the coaches he played against, Ray accounted for 45 touchdowns himself, throwing for a county-leading 1,179 yards and 25 TDs, and running for 844 yards and 20 more scores.

And he did this while switching coaches and offenses from Coach Doug Gabriel’s pass-heavy pro-style offense in 2017 to Brandon Pennington’s spread-option package that highlighted Ray’s zone-read skills.

“It turned out I liked running the ball a lot more, and I like it a lot,” said the 6-2, 220-pound Ray, who ran for multiple scored in eight of 11 games.

It’s no coincidence that Liberty had its best season ever since opening in 2007 — an 8-2 regular season that came with a bowl win, only because a lack of playoff points prevented the Chargers’ first-ever playoff appearance.

“It hurt, especially after the big win over Lake Nona, we thought we were in,” he said. “That game was the highlight of the year. It felt like a good year, a successful year. I’ve told the guys coming back that they’ve got to keep working and keep this going for the future at Liberty.”

LHS Coach Brandon Pennington said he started watching Ray’s 2017 film the moment he took the job last winter and liked what he saw.

“I saw that Jaelen could run and that he liked to run,” Pennington said. “His best runs (in 2017) were on designed pass plays and he couldn’t find a receiver so he tucked it and went.

“It was clear he was a spread option QB, and he took to it like a duck to water. There were times he’d signal to the sideline that he wanted to run the ball; if he wanted the QB run, we called it.”

Gateway RB Phillip Bangura: He became the Panthers’ feature back as a sophomore in 2017, and thrived in that role as a junior this year. If Gateway had a big game this season, so did Bangura, like in a 56-28 win over district rival George Jenkins that showed his versatility (227 rushing yards and four TDs, a TD catch and another .

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GHS Phillip Bangura

Gateway tailback Phillip Bangura led the county with 1,369 rushing yards and 146 total points.

He led the county with 1,369 rushing yards. He also returned a punt and an interception for scores, leading to a county-high 25 touchdowns and 164 points scored when factoring in seven two-point conversions.

“He’s a special kind of runner,” GHS Coach Marlin Roberts said. “He can be a power back, a finesse back, a speed guy, whatever we need in a situation. When it’s fourth-and-2, I always feel confident turning it to him, he’ll find a hole or tough out the yards we need.”

Osceola RB Dwayne McGee: Expecting a Kowboys running back to have a stellar season is like awaiting sunrise in the East; it’s inevitable in Coach Doug Nichols’ flexbone offense when about 37 of every 40 snaps are running plays.

Osceola had a stable of young backs — and they’ll all return next year — junior Dwayne McGee was the lead thoroughbred. He led the team with 1,164 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, 17 total touchdowns and 132 points.

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OHS Dwayne McGee

Osceola running back Dwayne McGee crashed the 1,000 yard barrier in his first year as a starting back.

And to hear it from McGee, more was possible.

“I felt like it couldn’t have been better, I could have been more confident in getting the yards,” he said. “Me and Devon (Wells, his quarterback) were first-year starters, and it was harder than I expected to be a leader.”

He, Wells, his running mates and four of five starting offensive linemen return, so McGee said to expected more from him and the Kowboys backfield in 2019.

“The offensive line really came together, and I’ve watched what other players do, and we’re ready to take that next step up,” he said. “Next year will be ‘that year.’”

Patience is a McGee quality, Nichols said.

“Dwayne has done a great job of waiting his turn, and I feel he has taken full advantage of it this year as a full-time starter,” he said. “As a sophomore he begin to become more involved. We look for big things out of him next year.”

St. Cloud slotback Seth Johnson: Watch him play, and the four-year varsity player’s game screams “experience.”

Unfortunately, he accounted for most of it on a young team, particularly on offense. While the Bulldogs finally found their way in the last half of the season, Johnson was a steady performer the whole year.

He led the county in catches (56) and receiving yards (842) and was fifth in rushing yards and led in yards per carry (91 for 924, 10.3 per carry).

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SCHS Seth Johnson

St. Cloud’s Seth Johnson was one of the county’s most productive players in 2018. He led Osceola in receiving yards, was fifth in rushing yards and scored 15 touchdowns.

Sadly, Coach Bryan Smart can’t clone him and bring back a freshman version to do it all again.

“Seth’s a coach’s dream. I have watched him do things on that field that you’re still wondering how the heck he did it,” Smart said. “I remember him coming in as a freshman and we were a very senior heavy team and he jumped right in and was accepted instantly.  He has that ‘it’ factor that people always talk about.  In the 4 years we have had him, he has never had a discipline issue, he carries over a 3.2 GPA and is a leader not only on the field but in the classroom.

Seth will go down as one of the best football players to come out of St. Cloud. When your best player is also your hardest worker that makes things a lot easier.  I will certainly miss him and can’t wait to watch him play on Saturdays.”

Harmony WR Caeleb Bass:He was an easy target for Longhorns’ quarterback Nate Herstich to find with his 6-5 frame, and after a fast start was on pace to match or break the single-season county TD reception mark that teammate Lane Hickey set at 17 last year. Bass leveled out later in the year as other weapons emerged, but Bass still paced the county with 12 scoring catches among his 42 for 662 yards.

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HHS Caeleb Bass

Harmony receiver Caeleb Bass goes up over a Liberty defender to haul in a 31-yard pass from quarterback Nate Herstich. Bass led the county with 12 TD catches.

Liberty WR La’Randy Swint: He was “Bill” on the Chargers sideline, but for Pennington and Ray, he was money, and a consistent producer of big “boom” plays in the offense. The senior, having played for three different coaches in his career, had 773 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, both the second-most in the county.

Osceola QB Devon Wells: Maybe at another school he’s a running back, elsewhere a slot back, and somewhere else a defensive back and return specialist. Best utilized as the Kowboys signal caller, he directed that Kowboys offense, making option reads, running for 703 yards and 10 touchdowns and passing for 397 yards and seven more scores despite averaging 5.5 passes a game.

“The first year you are moved to QB and produce that, I think it has been a very good year,” Nichols said. “I am really excited for spring ball and see the maturity he has gained over the year. He is a great motivational leader for us.”

All-County Football Offense

           1st Team                2nd Team

QB:     Jaelen Ray (L)          Nate Herstich (H)

RB:     Phillp Bangura (G)    Dwayne McGee (O)

          Ja’Randy Swint (L)    Justin Gleason (SC)

Slot:   Seth Johnson (SC)    Devon Wells (O)    

WR:    La’Randy Swint (L)    Jacob Graham (C)

          Caeleb Bass (H)        Romeo Medina (SC)    

OL:     Edward Hatton (L)    Christian Holloway (H)

        Nash Nelson (O)         Ben Brown (P)

        Xavier Castillo (O)       Logan Owens (O)

        Kyjuan Allen (G)         Giovanni Mejia (G)

        Thomas Schroeder (H) Cody Carter (O)

K/P:     Reece Allison (H)    

Honorable mention: Osceola: Colton Weismore, Cody Carter, Spencer Richards, Roshaun Dudley. St. Cloud: Garhett King, Koron Perrin. Gateway: Maurice Adams, Tyler Tyrell. Poinciana: Conner Beeken. Harmony: K.T. Torres, Jarin Dunn. Liberty: Lamar Patterson, Dan Retamar. Celebration: Ke’Shawn Peterson.  Tohopekaliga: Anthony Gonzlez.