Class 8A Regional Playoff  Preview: Kowboys looking for ‘One more Monday’

After Osceola’s first round 58-21 playoff win over Tampa Riverview three weeks ago, sophomore running back Ja’Randy Swint said, “One more Monday, that’s the only thing we want… one more Monday practice.”

With a convincing 21-7 win over Dr. Phillips last week, Swint and his teammates will still be hoping for “One more Monday” when they take on George Steinbrenner High School  (Lutz, Fla.) in a Class 8A, Region 2 Final Friday night. Kickoff is slated for Osceola’s Harry Ramsey Field at 7:30 p.m.

Steinbrenner, 11-1-0, on the season and seeded fourth, reached the Regional Final by defeating Newsome in the first round of the playoffs, before upsetting top-seeded Sarasota Riverview (27-24) in last week’s Regional Semifinal. That upset gave Osceola (No. 3 seed) home field advantage for the contest.

“In this case playing at home is a huge advantage,” Osceola Head Coach Doug Nichols said. “Being able to have our fans there is important, but the big thing is that they are the ones that have a three and a half hour bus ride before the game and not us. To tell you the truth, I scheduled Manatee (Brandon, Fla.) on the road this season thinking that if we got this far, we would be playing at Sarasota Riverview this week and I wanted our kids to experience having to take a long road trip.”

The Warriors last qualified for the FHSAA playoffs in 2015. But after winning just 18 games over the last four years, Steinbrenner put together an outstanding campaign in 2019, losing only to Chamberlain –also a regional semifinalist (5A) – in the last game of the regular season.

“Steinbrenner is a great example of how you occasionally get a great cycle of kids,” Nichols said. “They didn’t have a great record the last couple of years, but those tenth graders stuck together, got better as eleventh graders and now they have a very talented senior-dominated team.”

Senior quarterback Haden Carlson leads a high-flying Warriors offense that has averaged more than 46.1 points a game. Carlson has completed 62.5 percent of his passes (145 of 232) for 2016 yards and 30 touchdowns.  He has only thrown four picks on the season.

Two tall senior receivers, Aiden Bitter (6-3) and Dean Patterson (6-1), are Carlson’s favorite targets. Bitter has 47 receptions for 706 yards and 13 touchdowns; Patterson has 47 catches for 650 yards and nine scores.

But those are not the only targets for Carlson, as five different Warriors players have caught 10 or more passes this season.

Steinbrenner can also move the ball on the ground. One player in particular, Deon Silas, has dominated the carries— rushing 103 times for 953 yards and 16 touchdowns.  The offense is so efficient, the Warriors have only had to punt 19 times in 12 games.

“The receivers, quarterback and running back are all either Division-1 commits or prospects,” Nichols said.  “Carlson is extremely accurate and doesn’t make many mistakes.”

The Kowboys will counter with a defense that has been both stingy and opportunistic this season.  Osceola has recorded five shutouts; while allowing just 8.2 points per game. The defense also has 12 interceptions and forced five fumbles.

Osceola’s front seven, led by defensive lineman Dylan Ruiz (17 quarterback sacks), and linebacker Nolin Eady (48 tackles), will be tasked with both putting pressure on Carlson and containing Silas; while defensive backs Jerry Wilson (4 INT) and Daniel Cooper (3 INT), must slow down the Bitter-Patterson duo.

Like Osceola, Steinbrenner features a stout defense.  The Warriors are giving up just 11.1 points per game and has recorded four shutouts this season.  

The defense is led by a pair of outstanding safeties in Jose Bautista and Matt Durrance.  The duo has combined for 180 tackles and five interceptions this season.  Overall, Steinbrenner’s defense has recorded 37.5 quarterback sacks, 129 tackles-for-loss and has recorded 35 take-a-ways this season with 23 fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions.

Osceola will try to counter with a ball-control offense. In last week’s win over Dr. Phillips, the Kowboys went on drives of 12, 12 and 13 plays during the game, eating up a ton of the game clock and limiting the Panthers to just nine total possessions.

The Kowboys’ running game features six athletes who all have the ability to break a long run at any time. Swint leads the team with 757 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on just 92 carries. Dewayne McGee has rushed for 700 yards and six touchdowns; while quarterback Davon Wells, sophomore Roshaun Dudley, and Jamison Jones have all rushed for 200 or more yards this season.

Unlike previous years, Osceola has also moved the ball through the air as Wells and sophomore Blake Birchler have 16 combined touchdown passes this year. McGee has eight of those touchdowns on 18 receptions for 387 yards.

“We have had more touchdown passes this year than in the past, but last week our pass protection simply didn’t matchup with Dr. Phillips’ pass rush so we had to rely almost exclusively on our running game,” Nichols said.

He also believes that it may be more of the same this week.

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots too often. Running the ball has been our bread and butter for a decade and it will play a huge role for us on Friday,” Nichols said.  “In an ideal scenario, I’d like to take the opening kickoff, run a dozen plays, score, go up 7-0 and give them the ball with four minutes left in the first quarter. They are so good offensively, we are absolutely going to need to limit their chances, and our running game is going to be the best chance to do that.”