Following last week’s impressive opening round 59-21 win over Riverview High School, the Osceola Kowboys return to action Friday night, facing a familiar playoff adversary in Dr. Phillips. The Class 8A, Region 2 semifinal game will be contested on the road, kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
The Panthers , 9-2 and the Class 8A District 5 winners with a perfect 5-0 record, earned the right to host the second round game based on being the number two seed in the district above Osceola (9-1. 4-0), who was seeded third. Dr. Phillips advanced last Friday with a convincing 28-7 win over Lennard High School. The winner of Panthers-Kowboys game will move on to face the winner of the George Steinbrenner (10-1) at Sarasota Riverview (9-2) game in the Regional Final.
Friday’s Osceola game will mark the third time since 2015 that the Kowboys have met the Panthers in the post-season. Dr. Phillips knocked Osceola out of the post-season with a 17-13 win in a 2017 Regional Semifinal game; Osceola took a 20-19 decision in a 2015 Regional Quarterfinal match-up.
“Obviously those contests have no bearing on this year’s game,” Osceola Head Coach Doug Nichols said. “What we do know is that Dr. Phillip has a great program and is well coached and it is going to be a huge challenge for us to go up there and beat them on the road.”
Like Osceola’s current eight-game winning streak, Dr. Phillips enters the game with a long win streak – having been victorious in their last six contests. The Panthers only losses this year were to state powers Seminole (10-0) by a 35-13 count in the season opener and to Apopka (9-1) by a 21-13 score back on Sept. 20. Both of those schools are still alive in the Class 8A, Region 1 Bracket and are potential playoff opponents should Dr. Phillips or Osceola make it to the state semifinals.
The Panthers will field a team that is solid on both sides of the ball, averaging 28.8 points per game and allowing just 12.3.
Defensively, linebacker Stephen Dix and defensive end Shi Gaskin form the heart of the Dr. Phillips’ defense. They have combined for 141 tackles, 15 quarterback sacks and three interceptions in the regular season.
On offense, the Panthers spread the ball around. Brandon Fields missed several games due injury but still managed to rush for 747 yards and eight touchdowns in seven games during the regular season while averaging more than seven yards a carry.
Nivon “Pop” Holland gives them a reliable one-two punch in the backfield, as he has averaged 6.8 yards per carry with 452 yards and five touchdowns. Holland is also a threat as both a receiver and kick returner, having scored two additional touchdowns in those roles.
Quarterback Isiah Givens is an accurate passer. He’s completed 59 percent of his passes this season (84-141) for almost 1,200 yards, 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Ledger Hatch has been his top target with 35 catches for 574 yards and eight touchdowns. At 6-4, Hatch may present some matchup problems for Osceola’s shorter defensive backs.
“One key will be for us to know where he (Hatch) is on every play. He doesn’t look overly fast on film but then you keep seeing him run by people on every play. At 6-4 he is going to be handful,” Nichols noted.
The Kowboys will counter with a team that has been both explosive on the offensive side of the ball and more than a little stingy on defense.
In 10 games this season, the Kowboys have averaged 38.8 points per game and have allowed just 8.7. Osceola has registered five shutouts this season and about half the points allowed have come when the Kowboys have had their backups in the game.
Offensively, Osceola will again rely on its ground game as the main focus of its attack. Led by sophomore Ja’Randy Swint (100-851-11 TD), senior Dewayne McGee (75-741-7 TD), senior Davon Wells (48-519-6 TD), Roshaun Dudley (28-218-4 TD) and Jamison Jones (44-488-5 TD), Osceola features a bevy of explosive runners that are a threat to take it to the house on every carry. Add Najah Smith, Izaiah Jean-Baptiste and Joel Campbell to the equation and the Kowboys are actually eighth-deep in potential game-breakers in the backfield.
What has made Osceola more effective on offense has been their ability to throw the ball.
Starter Wells and sophomore back-up Blake Birchler have combined to throw 18 touchdown passes this season – the most by far in the Nichols Era at Osceola High School.
“The ability to go over the top has certainly been a huge plus for us this year. Davon worked hard on his passing game over the summer and it has paid dividends for us. On Friday, we will attempt to establish the running game but if they are putting eight or nine in the box, we will go to the passing game if needed.” Nichols said.
McGee has been the favorite target of Wells with seven touchdown receptions.
“As has been the case all season, ball control and tempo are going to be the keys to winning the game. We need to keep possession and limit their opportunities on the field and we need to stay disciplined. When playing a team like Dr. Phillips, we simply can’t afford to turn the ball over and we can’t take stupid penalties,” Nichols said.
Defensively, Dylan Ruiz (10 sacks) has anchored a defensive line that has racked up 29 quarterback sacks this season. But it has been the play of linebackers and defensive backs that have been a major surprise for the Nichols this season.
Led by defensive backs Daniel Cooper and Jerry Wilson and linebacker Nolin Eaddy, the starting back seven has 11 interceptions and has forced and recovered five fumbles this year and features just one senior in the group.
“Heading into the season the defense was sort of a concern for us,” Nichols said. “I knew we solid on the front four but we were playing a bunch of young kids at linebacker and defensive back. They responded to the challenge and got better every week.”