It comes more than a month later than normal, but high school football in Osceola County begins tomorrow with all eight public schools seeing action.
Osceola, which has qualified for the post-season in all 10 previous seasons under head coach Doug Nichols (105-23 with Kowboys, 120-39 overall) opens its 2020 campaign with a road game against Liberty at 7 p.m.
Despite losing 23 seniors off of last season’s 10-2 team that made it to state quarterfinals, the Kowboys are loaded again with both depth and talent on both sides of the ball.
Nichols noted that despite the delay of the season and many rules created to deal with the coronavirus, he believes his team is ready to play football.
“It was crazy, for the longest time we had to meet in small groups for workouts with no equipment, no contact and social distancing,” he said. “Frankly, we were running out of things to do. But since regular practices resumed, we’ve sort of returned to normal.”
The Kowboys wrapped up their pre-season with a scrimmage on Saturday.
“Our offense had a lot of trouble moving the ball, but frankly it may be because our defense has been pretty stout in the pre-season,” Nichols said. “Our sophomore linemen Walker (John) and Leblanc (Derrick) have had great pre-season camps; as have our linebackers. The defensive backfield was a strong point for us last year and certainly we got better there with the addition of sophomore transfer Bo Mascoe.”
Nichols added he was not ready to name a starting quarterback as junior transfer Chad Mascoe, a transfer from the IMG Academy, is in a battle with junior Blake Birchler. Nichols added that in addition to a win, he hopes his team will use this first game to develop some rhythm and consistency on both sides of the ball. “Just run our plays and hope to keep mistakes to a minimum,” Nichols said.
Liberty Head Coach Brandon Pennington realizes his team does not possess the size, speed and depth of Osceola’s team and will go into the game with a different mindset.
“I think our goal is go out and play the best game we can play. Last season, we gave them a pretty good game for two and half quarters before their depth and athleticism took over and hopefully the same thing could happen this year. If I could get that same effort this year I would be happy,” he said.
The Chargers, who lost several talented players to graduation from last year’s team, will look for leadership from quarterback John Smith and senior wide receiver Mekhi Jeanbaptiste.
“Last year was John’s first year of playing any type of football and he still managed to start four games for us,” Pennington said. “He had a solid off-season and certainly looks like he can run the offense for us.”
Depth could be a huge issue with the Chargers this year. “We’re basically at halfstaff,” Pennington noted. Right now half of our 1,800 students are taking classes on line and we only have 45 kids on our roster for all four grades compared to more than 80 last year.”
The St. Cloud Bulldogs, coming off a 6-4 record, opens its season with a 7:30 p.m. home game against county opponent Celebration. Bulldogs head coach Bryan Smart returns a senior-heavy class including senior quarterback Garhett King, explosive running back/ wide receiver Patrick Forsythe and Osceola News Gazette All-County lineman Kaiwasi Crudup.
“The biggest difference this year is going to be on our defense. We have some young kids that have just been flying to the ball.” Smart said. “Junior linebacker Giovanni Bayron has had a fantastic preseason and could be a dominant force on that side of the ball.”
With Crudup anchoring up front and outstanding defensive backfield featuring junior Devon Howard, senior Robert Robinson, and junior linebackers Azariah Williams and Devon Howard, the Bulldogs should improve significantly on a defense that gave up nearly 30 points a game over the last half of the season in 2019.
Smart added that, “Having some guys step up on offense to replace playmakers who graduated and staying healthy would be keys to the season. We lost some explosive players on offense but I think we have some good replacements. But staying relatively healthy will be a huge key. As with a lot of area schools we do lack some depth at key positions.”
Celebration is coming off a 4-6 season and will start the year having to replace graduated senior quarterback Will Bohn.
“We have had two guys battling for the starting job all preseason in sophomores Griffin Davis and Oneil Santis. Both are excellent athletes that will probably begin the season rotating at quarterback,” Head Coach Jay Sobke said.
Although the Storm team does not have a lot of starters returning on either side of the ball, he does not see that as a particular disadvantage.
“We have enough senior starters to provide leadership, but we have a lot of sophomores and juniors that will be first-time starters and will gain valuable experience this year.”
Sobke added that this pre-season has been stressful for the coaches.
“This has been the craziest year ever,” Sobke said as he enters his fourth year as head coach. Just simple things like a 30-minute weight room session has turned into a two-hour ordeal as each piece of equipment has to be cleaned and sanitized after each athlete uses it.”
The Storm is also one of five county teams that have opted out of the state playoff series. “Frankly, we wanted to make this as much of a normal season as possible for our seniors,” Sobke said. “By opting out we were able to extend the length of the season and schedule 10 games.”
Harmony Head Coach Don Simon said his team should be much improved over last year’s 2-8 season. That optimism starts with numbers, as Simon reported more than 100 kids in the top four grades came out for the first day of camp.
Sophomore Ayden Parks won the starting quarterback job in pre-season camp and Simon noted that the 5-10 sophomore has a “great command of the offense.” Sophomore running back Tyler Emans, who rushed for almost 400 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman is a “bigger, better version of himself and had an outstanding camp” according to Simon.
The Longhorn defense, which started a lot of freshman and sophomores last year, has also looked good in the preseason and should improve significantly from the 2019 team that allowed almost 35 points a game. “Those kids are a year older and we improved on both size and team speed,” Simon said.
Harmony opens its season against Oviedo (1- 0) on the road.
In the Osceola News-Gazette’s Featured Game of the Week, upstart Tohopekaliga will host Lake Minneola at 7 p.m. After going 2-7 in their first season of competition in 2018, Toho went 7-4 last year and won a bowl game.
While the Tigers lost several standout players to graduation, Head Coach Marc Deas returns a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, including sophomore quarterback Tyler Wesley (1961 passing yards, 17 TD), two-way standout WR/LB Demario Tolan, WR Sir Giles and LB Carlos Richard.
Gateway, 0-10 last season, opens its 2020 season with a road game against Olympia. Head Coach Marlin Roberts will look to senior quarterback Jerry Smith and WR/RB Jakovi Bryant to lead his young team.
Poinciana went 4-6 last year but said goodbye to several outstanding seniors including LB Jeremiah Jules and quarterback Justin Carpenter.
Randy Beeken’s squad does welcome back some talented players in RB Jalen Jarrett, wide receivers Deshawn Wimbery and Alex Quinones and DE/LB Matt Ambose. The Eagles open the season tomorrow night on the road against Lakeland Teneroc (0-1).