Kowboys faced adversity in 5A title game after fabulous 2007 season
By Rick Pedone
For the News-Gazette
Only a tiny number of high schools in Florida have had more football success than the Osceola Kowboys over the past three decades.
Osceola has reached the state championship game five times in various classes, winning the 1998 Class 5A title.
It was the state runner-up in 1982, 2007, 2014 and 2015.
The Kowboys were blitzed by Titusville (1982) and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (2014). They were simply overmatched in those games.
But, they could have beaten Pembroke Pines Flanagan for the 2015 Class 8A championship. It was a one score game until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, when the Falcons scored twice to blow it open, 26-7.
And then there is the 2007 Kowboys team, the one that, 10 years ago, probably should have been the Class 7A state champion.
St. Thomas Aquinas won that game, 35-20, but OHS fans will forever remember that as the one that got away.
The Kowboys brought a 14-0 record to the Citrus Bowl that December along with the No. 1 state ranking. To get there, Osceola had to knock off three-time defending state champion Lakeland – twice.
In perhaps the most celebrated regular season victory in OHS history, the Kowboys went to Lakeland in late October and scored with 24 seconds left to stun the Dreadnaughts, 25-21, snapping Lakeland’s state record 53-game regular season winning streak before 9,000 fans at Bryant Stadium.
The way the Kowboys won that game was the benchmark for the entire season. OHS had three of the biggest playmakers in the program’s history operating at peak efficiency as seniors – quarterback/defensive back T’Sharvan Bell, wingback/defensive back Gerard “Momo” Thomas, and running back Bubba Brown, a lightning bolt with 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash who finished the season as the state’s scoring leader (44 TDs, 278 points).
Thomas scored the game’s first touchdown at Lakeland, caught four passes to set up two more scores, and made the biggest defensive play of the season to keep OHS in the game when it trailed 21-13 in the fourth quarter. Brown’s sideline-to-sideline 35-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter pulled OHS close.
Bell and Thomas ran down Lakeland running back T.K. Lamb inside the 5-yard line as it appeared that Lamb was going to score the clinching touchdown with 10 minutes to play. But, Bell hit Lamb and then Thomas stripped the ball and recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
The next thing you knew, Bell hit tight end Brandon Brown on fourth down to pull OHS within two, 21-19, and later Bell sneaked over from the 1 for the winning score, sending an estimated 3,000 Kowboys fans who made the trip to Lakeland into a frenzy.
The victory clinched the district championship for the Kowboys and forced Lakeland to come to Osceola for the rematch in the regional semifinals.
OHS Coach Jeff Rolson, in his second season, was as amazed as the fans with the come-from-behind victory against a team that was ranked No. 18 in the country.
“Our big players made plays when we had to have them,” he said. “It was a crazy game. I couldn’t tell you how we won.”
One week before that game, Bell and Thomas connected on TD passes of 45 and 72 yards in a thrilling 35-31 Kowboys win over Lake Gibson at Kowboys field in another key district matchup.
The Kowboys rolled over Plant City Durant, 34-17, in the first round of the playoffs, and Lakeland stood no chance in the rematch, falling behind 22-0 in the second quarter as OHS banged its way to a 22-7 win.
A hard-fought 14-7 win at Tampa Chamberlain the following week sent the Kowboys to Jacksonville Bartram Trail for the state semifinal.
And, it was there that things went wrong. Osceola won, 27-21, in overtime, but without T’Sharvan Bell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter.
Sophomore linebacker Marc Deas was the backup quarterback, and here is what happened to him at about the same time that Bell was injured: “I was making a tackle, and some big guy fell on my head. I was pretty foggy.”
So, at the state semifinal game, Osceola’s best player was out with a knee injury, and his replacement was playing with a concussion. Meanwhile, Bubba Brown sprained his ankle, but rushed for 140 yards and scored three touchdowns as the Kowboys, somehow, won when defensive back Jules Helligar, who shifted over from receiver after Bell was injured, intercepted Clemson-bound QB Kyle Parker in the end zone in overtime.
That sent the Kowboys to the state championship contest minus Bell, with Brown “at about 70 percent,” and with a sophomore quarterback recuperating from a concussion.
Amazingly, the Kowboys dominated most of the first half during the title game, holding the ball for a remarkable 11:29 of the first quarter. But, they trailed 21-7 because the Raiders scored on an 84-yard run, a 73-yard kickoff return and after recovering a fumble deep in OHS territory.
Brown, obviously slowed by the ankle sprain, was caught from behind in the first quarter on what normally would have been a touchdown run. The Kowboys did not capitalize on that opportunity.
Thomas, the one healthy member of Osceola’s playmaking trio, scored on an 83-yard punt return, but he muffed another punt that led to a Raiders touchdown. Brown ran 25 yards to pull OHS within one score, 28-20, in the fourth quarter, but Aquinas put it away on Ryan Becker’s 51-yard TD pass to Duron Carter, son of NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter, with 5:37 to play.
Deas winces at that memory. Because he was playing both ways, he was pulled from the field to rest one play before Carter’s TD.
“Our coverage got mixed up. I remember that he ran right through my area,” Deas said.
Rolson tried to shield Deas from the pressure of running the offense by implementing a wingback set that had BJ Butler, the defensive end, act as QB on passing downs. He hit 1-of-6 passes for just 17 yards.
The Kowboys passing game would have been exponentially more efficient with Bell at QB. He accounted for more than 2,000 yards of total offense before his injury, passing for over 900 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 12 yards per carry.
Even without Bell, Osceola outgained Aquinas by a yard, 309-308. But, the Kowboys also made three turnovers.
That Aquinas team was an excellent one, but the Kowboys were practically unstoppable in 2007 – until Bell’s injury. They were outstanding in all three aspects of the game: offense, defense and special teams.
“The thing about that team is that we had great leaders,” said Deas, now an OHS assistant for Coach Doug Nichols. “T-Bell, Momo, (offensive linemen) Cody Pate and John Salvatore, (Pat) Lambert … those guys all were seniors and they set the tone for the young guys like me and Akeem (Daniels) and BJ (the future Louisville defensive lineman) because we were sophomores that year and learning.”
One reason the Kowboys persevered through injuries was the talent and depth they enjoyed. When offensive lineman Ben McIntee broke his arm (and still played in two playoff games), he was replaced by Malcolm Hall, who essentially learned the position on the fly. Ricky Archer and Charlie Burgess also cleared the way for Bubba Brown.
The defensive line was exceptional with Butler, Anthony Gandy, Jarell Emmanuel, Will Bostic, Taylor Thompson, Robert Strader, Mike Firmino and Hall.
The linebackers were at another level. Deas later played safety at Georgia, and Pat Lambert was the team’s defensive anchor and played at Cincinnati. Lambert also was an excellent punter, averaging over 40 yards through the playoffs.
The secondary was one of the best OHS ever will have with Bell (Auburn), Thomas (Colorado State), Jansen Watson (Iowa State) and Akeem Daniels all making big plays.
Could the Kowboys have won the championship game even without Bell and a healthy Brown?
Coach Rolson, who won two state championships as an assistant coach at Apopka before moving out of coaching, thought so.
“I think it was a little like the first Lakeland game, when we went in there a little wide-eyed,” Rolson said. “We maybe didn’t get lined up right at times, maybe we didn’t get in the right coverage. But, you can’t dwell on those things. That team we played was a tremendous team with all kind of talent.
“The truth is, we just didn’t get it done.”
The Kowboys set the school record with 14 wins in 2007, one more than the 1998 state championship team (13-2).
Bell fully recovered from his knee injury and started for Auburn in the defensive secondary when the Tigers won the 2010 national championship.
So, he got one.
But, Kowboys fans always will believe that he could have – should have – won two.