ORLANDO, Fla. -- What began as a mission ended with a statement.
Booker T. Washington (Miami), No. 4 in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 high school football rankings, closed out a perfect season Saturday afternoon at the Florida Citrus Bowl, defeating Nease (Ponte Vedra Beach) 23-15 in the Class 4A final.
The Tornadoes erased years of frustration in 48 minutes of play. In coach Tim "Ice" Harris' first four years, BTW lost three times in the state semifinals to Armwood (Seffner). Last week, though, BTW hammered Armwood 34-14 in the 4A semifinals. Then, on Saturday, it stamped itself as an elite team, one that relied on speed, depth and purpose.
"We looked for respect; winning [Saturday] goes a long way," Harris said.
It didn't come easy, though.
We knew defense wins championships. We wanted to show that ours is the best in the nation.
--BTW linebacker Tarvis Pullins
BTW needed to snuff out two Nease drives in the fourth quarter, and it played without starting quarterback Torrance Moise for the final 9:51.
Nease's 15-point tally was the second-highest total this season against BTW's vaunted 4-4 defense, which surrendered just 66 points in 14 games (29 of those points came in the final two games).
"Defense wins championships," Harris said. "We were solid all year. We tackled well [Saturday], which put us in a good position."
With Moise out with a calf injury, Harris called upon his son, Brandon, to take charge. Brandon effectively milked the clock, slowing the pace. He also carried six times for 35 yards in the fourth quarter and ran out the final 1:56 after a Nease punt to clinch it.
"[My father] told me to take charge," said Harris, who's ranked No. 29 in the ESPN 150. "It was about leadership. We had senior meetings all year; it's what we stressed."
BTW looked like the dominant team. Although Nease pulled to within two, 9-7, early in the second quarter, the Tornadoes surged to a 23-7 halftime lead as Eduardo Clements scored two of his three TDs in a 4:32 stretch of the second quarter.
Clements scored on a 1-yard run with 9:20 left in the second quarter, then took a swing pass from Moise (17-of-26 for 275 yards) for a 13-yard score with 4:48 left. Clements finished with 100 yards on 20 carries.
Nease, playing in its third consecutive Class 4A championship game, made it interesting when quarterback Ted Stachitas passed 7 yards to Patrick Barker for a score and the duo hooked up again on the two-point conversion to make it 23-15 in the third quarter. But the BTW defense made sure the Panthers didn't find the end zone again.
It was a dominating performance, and the stat sheet proved it. BTW had 346 total offensive yards, including 245 passing. It had 15 first downs, was 4-of-9 on third-down conversions and had three scores in red-zone situations.
Nease mustered only 76 yards on 30 plays, averaging less than 3 yards per play. It did manage, however, to score just the third first-half TD against BTW in 14 games.
Stachitas, a Wake Forest recruit, was given little time to establish a solid passing game. He finished 19-of-30 for 172 yards, but was sacked eight times. He has a reputation of a dual threat, finishing the season with 2,252 yards passing and 845 yards rushing. Against BTW, however, he netted minus-15 yards rushing trying to evade the teeth of a ferocious pass rush.
"We knew he was their Tim Tebow," said linebacker Tarvis Pullins, invoking Nease's former quarterback, who led the Panthers to a state title in 2005 and won this year's Heisman Trophy. "Nease never quit, [but] the game plan came through. We knew defense wins championships. We wanted to show that ours is the best in the nation."
BTW's defense blanked eight teams, including two in the postseason. The Tornadoes' linebackers -- Pullins, Winston Fraser, Franklin Brown and Charles McDonald -- were difference-makers, and BTW's defensive depth wore down Nease with an assortment of looks.
"We have the best depth in the state," Pullins said. "Our second team could play with most teams in the state. Hey, at the end, we put the ball in the hands of Brandon Harris. He's not even the starting quarterback but was ready."
Ice Harris said the seeds for a successful season were planted in late August when the Tornadoes traveled to nationally ranked Summerville (S.C.) for a game televised by ESPN.
"We came together as a team on that trip," Harris said. "We stayed in the same hotel, ate team meals and beat a very good team."
Summerville entered the game as South Carolina's preseason top-ranked Class 4A team and later advanced to its large-school championship game. But BTW beat Summerville 36-3, earning national credibility and galvanizing a team seeking its first football state championship.
Four months later, Harris stood atop the podium raising the championship trophy skyward as the flashbulbs popped. His Gatorade-drenched T-shirt stated the obvious: "All We Need is One Chance."
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 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.