So last night I attended a high school football game not as a reporter for the first time since I was in college. It was a little different not being in the press box or on the sideline, especially not having to keep track of every detail of every play for my stats or play-by-play.
But it was a lot of fun just being a fan and cheering on Lakeland as the Dreadnaughts faced longtime rival Kissimmee Osceola in the Class 7A playoffs. For the first time in years the two teams were not in the same district, but they still met in the second round of the playoffs after Osceola beat Ridge in the first round last week.
After a pretty slow start in the first quarter, Lakeland righted the ship behind strong defense and a very effective passing game under quarterback Raheeme Dumas. The Dreadnaughts won 20-7 and will face Tampa Gaither next week at Bryant Stadium.
There were three takeaways I had from the game:
- Bill Castle should win Coach of the Year: I gave Castle the award last year because I felt the Naughts truly had the best team in the county, and he got a lot out of his players. There really wasn’t another coach who stood out from the rest. This year, I’m not sure Lakeland has the best team (they didn’t play Winter Haven like last year, for instance) and they played a lot more close games than a typical undefeated Lakeland squad. But here’s the thing, they won all those close games. Castle has gotten just as much as, if not more, out of this year’s team than last year’s. Lakeland also overcame a tremendous amount of off-field adversity with the ongoing eligibility battle regarding the George Jenkins transfers. For the first half of the season, the story about Lakeland was who wasn’t on their roster as opposed to who actually was. Despite all of that, Castle has taken a team that entered the season with somewhat lower expectations and brought it to the same place Lakeland is almost every year: Deep in the playoffs. A win next Friday, and Lakeland will be in the state semifinals for the seventh time in eight seasons. So no offense to Winter Haven’s Charlie Tate, or Jemalle Cornelius as Fort Meade, or Lake Wales’ Rod Shafer, or even Lakeland Christian’s Wayne Peace. But Castle’s got my vote again this season.
- Ricquan Southward lived up to the hype: When I covered Lakeland last season, Southward wasn’t a big factor in the offense. Javares McRoy was still the team’s top playmaker, while Teddy Wright became a huge target in the passing game for QB Tim Evans. Both of those guys are now playing D-I college football. With the news that Jenkins transfer Jadrian Clark wouldn’t be playing QB at Lakeland this season, I figured the passing game would be an afterthought for the Dreadnaughts. But boy was I wrong. Southward exploded on the scene this season, breaking school receiving records while helping lead Lakeland to another district title. I hadn’t really seen Southward until last night, and he’s the real deal. He’s got really good hands and good body control, as evidenced by a leaping grab on the sideline last night, as well as a perfectly-run fade pattern for a touchdown just before halftime. And he’s not afraid of contact, carrying the ball multiple times on reverses. My only critique might be his vision while running because there were a couple of times he had quite a few blockers in front of him but couldn’t make his way through for a big gain. But I didn’t have a great angle and there might not have been anything there. Overall, he looks like a legit D-I prospect, which his recent commitment to the University of Miami confirms. Consider me impressed.
- I miss being out there: But I need to qualify that a little bit. I don’t really miss having to keep play-by-play, or stay out until 2 a.m. on Friday nights finishing the sports section, or the overall work schedule itself of covering events multiple nights per week and always being on call in case news breaks. What I miss is the people. It was great to see familiar faces last night such as Lakeland Principal Tracy Collins and assistant coaches John Flath and Danny Williams, and my old colleague at The Ledger, Dick Scanlon. There were plenty others with whom I didn’t have a chance to visit. But I miss telling their stories and building relationships, it’s something that just can’t be replicated without being fully immersed in that job. But, it’s a nice option to be able to still make a trip out to events every once in a while and get a taste of that, while enjoying all the benefits of my new career. So life is great, and last night was a chance to look back on some fond memories
Well, that’s about it. Great win by Lakeland last night, and hopefully the Dreadnaughts can keep on rolling and making Polk County proud in the postseason.
Oh, and that new turf at Bryant Stadium looks great, by the way.