By Ken Jackson
With a week’s worth of football practice in — full pads went on Thursday after three days of mostly conditioning — the 2018 season is close enough to see, hear and smell.
With the Kickoff Classics still 15 days away, here’s a review of how the 2017 season, marked by big wins and a jiggling of most schedules thanks to Hurricane Irma, went for each team in the county:
Osceola (10-1): The Kowboys went undefeated in the regular season, impressive with a young offensive line doing the moving up front for Coach Doug Nichols’ run-heavy offense. But it wasn’t a romp.
OHS needed strong defensive pushes against foes like Lake Gibson, the 2016 Class 6A runner-up in a 23-14 season-opening win, and Davenport Ridge. The 17-12 win over the Bolts pretty much clinched the District 8A-7.
The Kowboys followed by giving up zero points in four games in the month of October, including three shutouts in 8A-7 play, and just 20 points in the final six regular-season games. It included a stretch of 21 consecutive scoreless quarters.
The playoffs began soundly, with a 44-16 win over Bradenton Manatee that was closer than the score says; it was a 23-16 game with four minutes left in the third quarter before Osceola made big plays on both sides of the ball to blow it open. The Kowboys registered nine sacks to overcome a pair of turnovers that resulted in 10 Manatee points.
The playoffs ended exactly seven nights later in a regional semifinal still talked about months later. OHS led Dr. Phillips 13-10 on Marcos Espana’s 26-yard field goal with 2:04 left, the Panthers got a big kickoff return, then won it on an eight-yard touchdown pass from BeSean McCray to Devodney Alford with 15 seconds left
Those two teams will renew their rivalry in the Aug. 17 Kickoff Classic played at Austin-Tindall Sports Complex.
Gateway (6-5): The Panthers made the playoffs for the second time in three years, thanks to the state changing how it fills its playoff brackets in 2017 to a points-based system.
A 23-14 win over Harmony helped, and probably propelled them into the playoffs as an eventual sixth seed in Region 8A-2. Coach Marlin Roberts’ team stood 4-2 before a pair of losses to Osceola and Ridge, making games against Titusville Astronaut and Mount Dora must-wins to get into the playoffs — essentially playoff games in themselves. The Panthers came from down 14-0 at halftime to knock off Astronaut, thanks to fourth-quarter touchdowns from Phillip Bangura on offense and defense. Against Mount Dora they took a 13-0 lead six minutes in and dominated time of possession the rest of the way, thanks to Tyler Tyrell’s three rushing touchdowns.
Gateway fell to Sarasota Riverview in the playoffs.
Harmony (6-4): The Longhorns’ offense looked quite a bit better — and faster — than it did at the end of 2017 than the beginning, losses in any one of the four key games they dropped likely cost them a playoff trip.
After a completed 33-6 win and a tough 24-21, last-minute loss to East River, both in District 7A-5, the Longhorns came through in a fully-entertaining 35-33 win over St. Cloud that tied the all-time Solider City Classic series at 6-6.
Harmony fell to Lake Nona, ending thoughts of winning the district, and had to win its final two games. Trailing Satellite 37-19 late in the second quarter, it got big plays on special teams (two blocked field goals) and took a 44-37 lead in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Scorpions score twice. The Longhorns came back to tie it, block an overtime field goal, and win it with a score. The season ended in Bradenton against Southeast, 67-42, with a defense depleted by injury.
Quarterback Nate Herstich set a school record for season passing yards and the county record for touchdown passes (30). Lane Hickey caught 15 of them, another county record.
St. Cloud (4-6): Against a stout schedule, especially early in the year, the Bulldogs were never able to get serious traction in the district or region. Three wins came against county squads: a 42-15 win over Gateway in which county rushing leader Charles Robinson went for 270 yards, a 20-12 win over Liberty and a dominating 29-0 win over Celebration.
Liberty (4-6): Like St. Cloud, the Chargers could not get wins in the big district games they needed. They did register nice victories in games against local rivals — a 43-7 win over Poinciana with over 500 yards of offense to keep their record perfect in the “Battle of the Boulevard” and a 13-0 win over Celebration helped by nine sacks. They closed with a dominating 67-0 win over Lake Region, Coach Doug Gabriel’s final game before school officials replaced him.
Poinciana (2-8): The Eagles got off to a great start with a 28-20 win over Whittier Christian of La Habra, Calif., at ESPN Wide World of Sports to open the year. They were 2-2 after a 20-18 win over Space Coast that featured five turnovers. But then the schedule caught up, including District 5A-13 games against state powers Bishop Moore and Jones in four days. Coach Ken Knapczyk stepped down after the season.
Celebration (1-9): The Storm struggled with injuries and ineligible players on the offensive line and didn’t score until the ninth game of the season, a 24-0 over Windermere in a District 7A-5 matchup. Quarterback Timothy Cantwell rushed for a touchdown and tossed a TD pass to Jacob Demarino, and linebacker Blaize Guzel returned an interception 58 yards for another score.