- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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This is the final of a three part series chronicling the postseason for teams from the Southland Region in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 high school football rankings. Other southern states such as Arkansas, North Carolina, and Virginia also are profiled. Previously, the East, Midwest, and West regions were analyzed. The nation's football postseason stretches until Dec. 22 when Texas' large schools (Class 5A) crown champions in Division I and II. The ESPN HIGH Elite 25 final rankings will be released Christmas Day.
Billy Rolle has enjoyed those special moments. He's watched his players sign their national letters-of-intent, coached in big football games and won Florida large-school state championships.
Rolle, the head coach at Northwestern High in Miami, has a few pearls of wisdom to share as the Bulls, starting Friday night, embark on their odyssey to the Class 6A championship game on Dec. 15 in Orlando.
"Health," he said. "It starts with having your players in the lineup. As a coach you look at the lineup to start the season, then you look at it again after six or seven games and then again as you head into the playoffs. When you see those same players healthy, you have to like your chances."
Northwestern (10-0), No. 1 in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 high school football rankings, polished off its third undefeated regular season in the last decade following a 46-0 hammering of Miami Jackson in the annual Soul Bowl rivalry. The victory stretched the win streak to 25 games, the state's longest active.
The Bulls now turn their sights to Coral Gables (9-1), the District 14 runner-up, in the Region 4 quarterfinals.
"They (Coral Gables) do a little of everything," said Rolle, a Coral Gables graduate.
Two standout players comprise two-thirds of the backfield. Quarterback Christopher Gordon and running back Alton Curry concern Rolle. Gordon has thrown for 1,438 yards and 19 touchdowns and Curry has gained 1,300 yards (6.5 yards per carry) with 17 TDs.
"Their play selection is pretty much 50-50," said Rolle of Coral Gable's pass-to-run ratio.
For the Bulls to win their second straight 6A (Florida's largest of eight classes) title, it must navigate through a regional minefield booby-trapped with contenders such as Columbus (9-0) -- who crushed Coral Gables 49-10 -- and Homestead.
"These days the talent is spread all over Miami-Dade (County)," Rolle said. "About 20 years ago, the same five teams had it all."
Northwestern might be throwback team. At least six players have verbally committed to the University of Miami, most recently Kendall Thompkins (30 receptions, 517 yards, seven TDs), an under-the-radar wide receiver in the preseason. Two more -- tackle Benjamin Jones and wide receiver Tommy Streeter -- are mulling offers from the Hurricanes.
"That's unbelievable," Rolle said.
Rolle is in his second stint with Northwestern. He took over in July after a sex cover-up case rocked the school last season. Rolle has won two 6A titles with the Bulls. He was head coach in 1998 and was a defensive coordinator in 1995 and then took Miami Killian to the 6A crown in 2004.
Winning Region 4 will be difficult but three other regions also have power.
In Region 1, district winners Apopka (9-1) and Lake Brantley-Altamonte Springs (9-1) should meet in the final. Boone-Orlando (10-0) is the clear favorite in Region 2. Region 3, comprised mainly of teams from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm counties is wide open. Deerfield Beach (8-2), Boyd Anderson-Lauderdale Lakes (9-1), and North Miami Beach (10-0) are contenders.
Florida's football talent isn't relegated to Class 6A.
No. 7 Pahokee (10-0), the nation's premier small school, is the top team in Class 2B and should cruise to the final on Dec. 8. The 16-team bracket features undefeated teams in each of the four regions. Pahokee closed out a perfect season, beating reigning 3A champion Glades Central (Belle Glade), 34-24, in the Muck Bowl.
The Blue Devils, which carry a 24-game win streak, open Friday with University-Fort Lauderdale (8-2) in the semifinals and play King's Academy-West Palm Beach (8-2) or Marathon (7-3) in the final.
Other regional favorites are: Florida High-Tallahassee (10-0) in Region 1; Newberry (10-0) in Region 2; and Crescent City (9-0) in Region 3.
No. 4 Booker T. Washington is the favorite in Class 4A but would have a rugged state semifinal game against Armwood-Seffner (10-0), Florida's No. 4 ranked team in the Beef O' Brady's Top 25. The poll ranks all eight classes in one rating.
"It's a killer bracket," said Steve Berrey, a Florida prep expert who compiles the Beef O' Brady's rankings. "In the past, it's been 6A or 5A. There are nine teams who can win 4A this year.
"If you flipped a coin on who might win, it would land on its side."
Class 4A has seven representatives, followed by 6A (with six), and 5A (four).
In Region 4, BTW (9-0) must contend with Barron Collier-Naples (6-4), Fort Pierce Westwood (8-2), and Dwyer-Palm Beach Gardens (8-2) -- all are district champions; all very beatable. BTW opens Friday against Gulf Coast-Naples (7-3) at 10,000-seat Milander Stadium in Hialeah.
BTW has reached the state semifinals the last four years and has lost all four -- last year to Plant-Tampa and the three previous to Armwood.
In Region 3, Armwood is the favorite but would likely play Plant-Tampa (9-1) in the final. "Armwood does not have a cakewalk," Berrey said of Region 3.
Lincoln-Tallahassee (9-1) and Pace (9-0) are top teams in Region 1, while Seabreeze-Daytona Beach (10-0) and Nease-Ponte Verda Beach (9-1) in Region 2 could meet in the final on Nov. 30.
There are two large-school divisions in Texas Class 5A.
To win the Class 5A, Division II championship, a team must slog through six elimination games. That's 16 games if a team reaches the final -- the equivalent of an NFL regular season.
"It's a grind," No. 6 Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson said of the playoff run. "But it's enjoyable. We look forward to it; there's an adrenaline rush, a sense of excitement; and thrill of the moment."
The Dragons (9-1) have fought the injury bug all season and heading into Friday's bi-district will be "down a few players," Wasson said, against Flower Mound (Lewisville) at Texas Stadium (7 p.m. ET).
Southlake Carroll, which saw its win streak stopped at a Texas-record 49 games by No. 1 Northwestern (Miami) in a nationally televised game on ESPNU, has won three straight 5A titles and four in five years.
For the Dragons to advance out of Region 1, they'll need to beat Abilene (9-1) in the quarterfinals and DeSoto (8-2) in the final. The Region 1 winner would play Region 2 in the state semifinals. College Park, South Garland, Longview, and Lufkin are the front runners.
No. 5 Katy, the state's top-ranked 5A team, has an easier road to the finals, Dec. 20-22 in San Antonio. Katy (10-0) needs to defeat Strake Jesuit (Houston) in the bi-district round Friday, where it could play Madison (Houston) or MacArthur (Houston) in the Area playoffs.
In Region 4, Smithson Valley (Spring Branch) has a clear path to the final, where San Antonio Madison (9-1) could be waiting.
The Division I tournament is loaded in Region 2. Allen, Plano, Dallas Skyline, Stony Point (Round Rock), and Westfield (Spring) are the contenders.
Allen (10-0) is the lone unbeaten in the region. In Region 1, an appetizing quarterfinal matchup between Odessa Permian (the school Friday Night Lights is based on) and Euless Trinity could be on the menu.
Houston area schools North Shore-Galena Park (10-0) and Cypress Ridge (9-1) are top teams in Region 3. Austin Bowie is the top-ranked team in Region 4.
The Southland Region is dominated annually by Florida and Texas schools but other states are whittling down their brackets this weekend.
The nation's longest active win streak garners top billing in Class 5A. No. 3 South Panola (Batesville) has dominated 5A, capturing the last four championships. The Tigers (11-0), guided by first-year coach Lance Pogue, have won 71 straight games (tied for fourth all-time).
Winning a fifth 5A crown is likely, but it won't come easy. The North state bracket is loaded with top-notch competition. In the eight-team North, the Tigers have already beaten three teams but Olive Branch stands out. South Panola won 17-3 on Oct. 5 but the Region 1 rivals could meet in the North final.
Meridian and George County (Lucedale) are the top entrants in the South bracket. The 5A final is Dec. 7 at Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson, 8 p.m. ET.
No. 8 Maryville, the Region 3 champion, has won six Class 4A titles, including the last three, since 2000. The Rebels lead the state with 11 overall championships. The Rebels stretched their win streak to 56 games, defeating Rhea County (Evensville), 42-14, in the opening round. Next up for the Rebels are West (Knoxville), a team it beat 35-21 on Oct. 11.
Greeneville and Sullivan South, both region champions, pose the toughest draws for the Rebels en route to the semifinals. Other contenders in 4A are Hillsboro, Melrose (Memphis), Clarksville, and Henry County. The final is Dec. 8 in Nashville.
No surprises thus far in the Division II, Class AA (private schools) tournament.
Montgomery Bell Academy (Nashville) and Father Ryan (Nashville) square off Friday in one semifinal while Brentwood Academy meets Ensworth (Nashville) in other. The winners play Nov. 24 for the championship.
Earlier this season, top-ranked MBA (11-0) edged Brentwood, 13-7, and blanked Ryan, 26-0. Coach Dan McGugin's club has outscored opponents, 310-88, including three shutouts (two in the last three games). The Big Red allows only eight points per game.
The state playoffs get underway this week. No. 10 Northside (Warner Robins) needed to win a crossover game to qualify for the Class 4A first round despite being the state's top-ranked club. Northside (10-0), which has won the last two 4A championships, showed dominance this season with running back Tijuan Green, the school's all-time leading rusher.
The Eagles have a clear path to the semifinals. Their bracket does not contain any of the state's Top 10 4A teams. Tucker (10-0), Thomas County Central (10-0), Fayette County (10-0), Habersham Central (9-1) and East Paulding (10-0) will provide the stiffest challenge. The final is Dec. 14.
In the large-school class (5A), No. 25 North Cobb (Kennesaw) carries momentum into the first round against Peachtree Ridge (Suwanee). North Cobb closed out the regular season blanking Marietta, 49-0, as running back Calvin Middleton rushed for 211 yards and three TDs.
North Cobb's bracket is fortified by Camden County (Kingsland), which went 9-1 this season. The two could meet in the quarterfinals. In an opposite bracket, Martin Luther King (10-0), the state's other undefeated 5A team, Walton (9-1), and Harrison (9-1) will compete. The final is Dec. 15.
No. 16 West Monroe (10-0) opened the Class 5A (large school) tournament with a 49-17 victory over Ruston. The Rebels did not get the top seed because it went to Destrehan (11-0). Coach Stephen Robicheaux's club allows 12 points per game, with two shutouts. Destrehan bounced West Jefferson (Harvey), 37-12, in the bi-district round.
Destrehan's chief threat en route to the title is Baton Rouge Catholic. West Monroe plays defending 5A champion Acadiana (Lafayette) Friday. A win by West Monroe means either Hahnville (Boutte) or Archbishop Rummel (Metairie) in the quarterfinals.
In 2A, top-seeded John Curtis (River Ridge) is clearly the favorite but should receive a test from St. James, Evangel Christian (Shreveport), and Calvary Baptist (Shreveport). John Curtis, which dropped out of the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 rankings in September, goes for its 10 title in 12 years and fourth consecutive.
Evangel Christian won last year's 1A title but was reclassified this fall. Calvary (10-0) is coached by former NFL quarterback Doug Pederson and averages 45 points per game and edged Evangel, 28-21, in its closest game this season. Calvary would likely face second-seeded St. James (9-2) in the semifinals.
Curtis (8-2) could play Evangel in the semis but must first beat Westminster (Opelousas in the regional round. Curtis lost to St. James, 16-14, on Oct. 26.
Bastrop is the favorite again in Class 4A. The finals for the five classes are Dec. 7-8 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
No. 13 Prattville (11-0) has a difficult road to defending its Class 6A championship. Friday night's second-round game at Auburn (8-3) has the earmarks of a trap: on the road against an underrated opponent. Prattville crushed Baldwin County (Bay Minette), 42-14, in first round and Auburn eliminated Theodore, 35-15.
Prattville has rolled in its last five games, including in the 6A first round. The Lions have outscored the last five opponents, 227-41, with two shutouts.
If Prattville wins, it would play Foley (11-0) or Murphy (7-4) in the quarterfinals. Foley features wide receiver Julio Jones, the top-ranked player in ESPN 150. Other second round matchups include: Daphne (10-1) at Opelika (9-2); Hueytown (10-1) at Hoover (5-5); Hewitt-Trussville (9-2) at Vestavia Hills (10-1); Tuscaloosa County (11-0) at Mountain Brook (8-3); and Spain Park (10-1) at Gadsden City (10-1).
Hoover, which is unbeaten in state, is Alabama's fourth-ranked 6A team despite forfeiting four games. If the Hoover wins, a date in the quarterfinals with rivals Vestavia Hills looms. The 6A final is Dec. 8 in Birmingham.
No. 19 St. Xavier (Louisville) might be Kentucky's top-ranked team (in all classes), but its Friday game against Manual (Louisville) becomes a tough second round game in Class 6A (large school). Manual (10-1) suffered its lone loss this to St. Xavier, 21-14, on Sept. 21. A crowd of 8,500 is expected to cram St. Xavier's Brother Thomas More Stadium. If St. Xavier advances it would play Daviess County or Marshall County in the quarterfinals.
St. Xavier's biggest challenge should come from archrivals Trinity (Louisville) which plays Ballard (Louisville) Friday. Trinity (9-2) lost to No. 2 St. Xavier (Cincinnati) and St. Xavier (Louisville) this season but has outscored opponents, 487-170. Trinity should meet Henry Clay-Lexington (9-1) in the quarterfinals.
The 6A Prep Bowl final is Dec. 8 at Papa John Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.
North Carolina preview
Independence (Charlotte) finds itself in a precarious situation. The 10th-seeded Patriots face elimination from the Class 4AA playoffs for the first time this decade. Coach Tommy Knotts' club, which has won seven straight state titles, plays archrivals Butler (Charlotte) Friday in the district round.
Two weeks ago, Butler halted Independence's win streak versus North Carolina teams at 114 games during a 21-20 victory. Knotts was suspended from the game after an altercation with a parent of a junior varsity player but coached in last week's 54-7 blowout at Page (Greensboro). Butler advanced with a lopsided 49-6 victory over Lumberton.
The winner of the Butler-Independence matchup is in good shape. The toughest test comes in the semifinals (or regional final), where it could face top-seeded West Charlotte. Independence beat West Charlotte, 49-32, on Sept. 8. The victory was a week after Independence saw its 109-game win streak stopped against Elder (Cincinnati).
Garner (12-0), Rolesville (12-0) and New Bern (10-2) are top teams in the other side of the bracket. The 4AA final is Dec. 8.
South Carolina preview
Rumors are swirling that legendary coach John McKissick of Summerville will retire after 56 years. McKissick, 554-129-13, is the winningest football coach in high school, college or the pros.
Summerville (11-1), which began the season in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 rankings, has rebounded since an opening game 36-3 loss to No. 4 Booker T. Washington (Miami) and could face No. 21 Byrnes (Duncan) in the Class 4A, Division I final.
Summerville, which fell in last year's quarterfinals, plays in that round Friday against Fort Dorchester.
Byrnes (12-0), led by first-year coach Chris Miller, looks for its first final since 2005. A high-powered offense averages nearly 44 points and opened the 16-team bracket beating Hillcrest (Simpsonville), 56-14. Friday's opponent, Dorman (Roebuck), defeated Dutch Fork, 28-0. The final is Dec.1 at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
It's a wide open race in Class 7A (large-school), where the semifinals will be played Friday. Bentonville (9-2), which last won in 2001, plays Fayetteville in one semi and Har-Ber (Springdale) meets Russellville. The final is Nov. 24 at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, 1 p.m. ET.
Three of the four semifinal teams average more than 30 points per game, with Russellville at 24 points. Russellville, after a 3-3 start, has rallied to 7-4 and eliminated Northside (Fort Smith), 24-20, in the quarterfinals. Har-Ber (9-2) has won four straight after losing last month to Northside, 16-12. Har-Ber's offense produces nearly 35 points per game.
Bentonville (9-2), top-ranked, defeated Fayetteville, 42-35, on Oct. 19. Bentonville has lost to Har-Ber and Hickman (Columbia, Mo.) this season. Fayetteville (7-3-1) has outscored opponents, 379-239.
In 6A, the matchups are West Memphis and Texarkana and Sylvan Hills and Lake Hamilton. Sylvan Hills last won a title in 1980. The final of the tight eight-team bracket is Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET in Little Rock.
The 3A tournament features five rounds and might be the most competitive. Top-seeded Shiloh Christian, the defending champion, received a first-round bye and plays Harding Academy (Searcy) Friday. Shiloh also won titles in 1998, '99, and '01. Private schools have won three of the last four 3A crowns.
Six champions will be crowned in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The most competitive and highly anticipated brackets are Divisions 5 and 6 (large schools).
The top seeds in the four regions are:
• Northern: Stone Bridge (Division 5); Westfield (Division 6)
• Eastern: Phoebus-Hampton (Division 5); Oscar Smith-Chesapeake (Division 6)
• Northwest: Potomac (Division 5); Battlefield-Haymarket (Division 6)
• Central: Dinwiddie (Division 5); L.C. Bird-Chesterfield (Division 6)
The Division 5 and 6 finals are Dec. 8 at University of Virginia's Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
Oscar Smith and Westfield are favorites in Division 6 and Stone Bridge and Potomac in Division 5.
The Division 1 and 2 (small schools) final are in Salem and the 3 and 4 finals are slated for Dec. 8 at Liberty University in Lynchburg.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.
Christopher Lawlor previews the high school football playoffs in: Florida, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Kentucky.