- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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All the football adages and coach-speak goes out the window this weekend at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
After a season of popping pads, injuries, lopsided victories, controversy and steely resolve, it's time for two Miami teams in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 high school football rankings to stamp themselves as Florida immortals.
Top-ranked Northwestern (Miami) looks to run the table for the second consecutive year Saturday (7 p.m. ET) against Boone (Orlando) in the Class 6A (largest classification) championship game. Northwestern, No. 1 in the Elite 25 since the preseason, hopes to make it coast to coast in the rankings but mostly wants to stretch its current state-best win streak to 30 games. The team boasts 19 players who are expected to play college football.
No. 4 Booker T. Washington (Miami) extracted a painful thorn last week reaching the championship round for the first time in program history. The Tornadoes blew away Class 4A powerhouse Armwood (Seffner), 34-10, in the semifinals.
Saturday (1 p.m. ET) the Tornadoes hope to register their 14th consecutive victory this season against Nease (Ponte Vedra Beach), a seasoned team with plenty of final game experience.
"We're fired up and focused for it (the final)," BTW coach Tim "Ice" Harris said. "Last week's win (against Armwood) got us over the hump. After losing three times to them and the last two by close margins it was satisfying, but we still have one more."
Often that final game stands in the way of great team and the immortals. Harris knows Nease will be formidable.
Harris also knows destiny lies squarely on the shoulders of the program he's built from the ground up.
The turnaround from a Dade County minnow to national rankings shark, smelling a title, has taken five years. Harris, who earned his nickname from a cool, calming demeanor, is 56-7 during that span, including 13-0 this campaign.
The Tornadoes win with defense. The unit has eight shutouts this year, registering six straight at one point and allow 1.2 yards per carry against the run.
Here's why BTW is so effective: it's only allowed 17 points all season (and 51 total points) in the first half of games. Essentially the Tornadoes strike early and squeeze tight.
In the semifinals, their modus operandi played out.
Junior quarterback Torrance Moise guided the Tornadoes to 14-7 lead early in the first half and put the game away with defense. Moise, a backup to start the season, threw for two scores and ran for another. This season he rushed for 624 yards and 11 TDs and passed for 1,398 yards and 19 TDs.
Two-way performer Brandon Harris, a participant in the inaugural Under Armour All-America High School Football Game on Jan. 5, is a star. Schools such as LSU, Miami, Ohio State and Florida are in the running.
He wants to go out a winner in his final game.
This season Harris has caught 26 passes for 561 yards and eight TDs and has run for 115 yards and two scores on 22 carries.
Nease (13-1) advanced to its third straight final, beating Pace (Pensacola), 49-48, in four overtimes. When Nease won the 4A championship in 2005, future Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was at the controls. This year his quarterback understudy, Ted Stachitas, has the Panthers looking for more hardware to place in the school's trophy case.
Stachitas was brilliant against Pace in the semifinals, especially in the overtimes. He completed 18-of-37 passes 286 yards and two TDs but in overtime threw 10 yards to Patrick Barker for one score and ran for another.
"He's a good thrower but he can beat you with his running," Harris said.
Nease's defense surrendered 22 points in the final 12 minutes, forcing the extra sessions.
The Wake Forest-bound Stachitas has completed 173 of 288 passes for 2,085 yards and 20 TDs and has rushed for 860 yards and 15 TDs. The Panthers employ a spread offense but emphasize the run.
The BTW 4-4 defense, which has allowed 20 points in the four postseason games, will pressure Stachitas and lay hard plastic on the ball carriers. The defense has 55 sacks, led by lineman Kambriel Willis' 18. Johnathan Jackson and tackles Kanarvis Ritchie and Rodney Gustave round the line.
Harris believes the linebacking corps of Tarvis Pullins, Winston Fraser, Franklin Brown and Charles McDonald might be the difference.
"They've been unsung all season; they know the assignments," he said.
Nease has weapons on special teams.
In the semifinals, sophomore kicker Andrew Barker converted two field goals in the four overtime sessions, including an extra-point for the margin of victory. Barker also kicked field goals of 30, 36 and 41 yards. For the season he's made 12 of 16 attempts and missed only six times on 49 extra-points.
Containing BTW's powerful punt return team might be difficult for most teams, but the Panthers have punter Zack Cooper, a three-year starter. Cooper has put 12 punts inside the 20-yard line, averaging nearly 40 yards per punt.
Northwestern: No bull
Billy Rolle, the head coach of the nation's best team, is in his second stint with Northwestern. He's done it before with the Bulls, having annexed a state title in 1998. He became Dade County's first football coach to win state titles at two schools in 2004 with Miami Central.
In July, he inherited a talented program which was wrapping up a tabloid in-school sex scandal involving a player (who since has graduated) from last year's team. Former coach Roland Smith was fired; so were others. Rolle was brought back to quell public outrage.
The transition was seamless.
Rolle's club has been tested. In September, the Bulls beat then-No. 2 Southlake (Texas) Carroll, 29-21, in a nationally televised game.
Six players have verballed to the U (a.k.a. University of Miami) and the offense averages 42 points per game and scored nearly 400 points in the opening half of games.
Quarterback Jacory Harris is setting all sorts of records. Harris, a Miami recruit, has thrown for 47 TDs and 3,164 yards on 205-of-301 accuracy.
He has five speedy targets: Aldarius Johnson (69 receptions, 876 yards, 12 TDs); Kendal Thompkins (43-798, 13 TDs); Tommy Streeter (32-585, 10 TDs); Brandon Drayton (25-325, four TDs); and Robert Demps (19-309, four TDs).
The defense has 22 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries, allowing 10 points per game.
Boone (14-0) advanced to the final defeating Apopka, 21-18.
Much of Florida's large-school championship week hype was clearly focused on the Class 4A and 6A finals and that may suit 5A combatants, St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) and Osceola (Kissimmee), just fine.
Sometimes flying under the media radar allows teams to focus better; not so if you play for St. Thomas Aquinas, which plays for a title for the fourth straight December. The Raiders last won it all in 1999.
The legendary program, which is produced the likes of Brian Piccolo and Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, looks to pay back an outstanding final-game debt. After losing the last two years in the 5A final to Lakeland, a new champion will be crowned Friday night (7 p.m. ET kickoff).
Aquinas coach George Smith, who has won more than 300 games, is aware of his opponent's strength.
"They run it," he said. "The (Delaware) wing-T is a whole different animal. We haven't seen it too often and they execute it well. We have our work cut out."
Kissimmee (14-0) built its resume beating nationally ranked Lakeland twice. The first win halted Lakeland's state-record consecutive win streak at 53 games. The Kowboys (14-0) then eliminated Lakeland last month in the region semifinals.
Aquinas rallied in the semifinals for a 35-13 win at Largo. Trailing 13-0 in the second quarter, the offense kicked in and the defense tightened.
Aquinas (13-1) relies on ball-hawking defensive backs Rodney Gillis (five interceptions), John Karr (two), Jeremy Williams (two), and Dorian Graham. Linebacker Conor O'Neill has seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss and Christian Thompson has 59 solo tackles.
Quarterback Ryan Becker has completed 57% of his passes for 1,542 yards and 23 TDs. WR Philip Pierre-Louis has 27 receptions for 574 yards (21.3 yard per catch) and eight TDs.
Pierre-Louis is a threat when he touches the ball, having returned four punts for TDs. He leads the Raiders with 1,572 all-purpose yards.
Both teams are unranked but could wind up in the Elite 25 final rankings which will be released on Christmas Day.
Today's opening game, the Class 3A final, pits St. Augustine (13-1) and Naples (14-0) at 1 p.m. ET. St. Augustine has won four playoff games with defense, having recorded two shutouts and allowed 20 points. Naples has won its last two games by a total of 10 points.
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.
No. 1 Miami Northwestern and No. 4 Booker T Washington look to cap perfect seasons in their respective Florida state final games Saturday, writes Christopher Lawlor.