Final five: Previewing matchups for Gainesville's surviving high school football teams

The Gainesville Sun
The Gainesville Sun

With just four teams remaining in each of the FHSAA's classifications, having five Gainesville-area high school football teams still playing this late in the season is pretty special.

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Bradford, Buchholz, Columbia, Hawthorne and Union County are all still in the hunt for a state title and will have an opportunity to punch their tickets to their respective state championship games on Friday night. Here's a deeper look at what to watch for in each of the surviving five's state semifinal matchups.

Blountstown (9-4) at Hawthorne (10-0)

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Annie Mae Phillips Stadium, Hawthorne

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: It's been a hectic week for the Hornets, who weren't sure they'd be hosting the semifinal after the FHSAA challenged Hawthorne after complaints that Annie Mae Phillips was unfit to host the game. However, after a week of meetings between the FHSAA and school officials, Hawthorne will have an opportunity to defend its home turf. Hawthorne narrowly survived last week's region final against Pahokee with a 21-20 win, which saw the Hornets force a pair of game-altering turnovers, including a Pick-6 from senior defensive end Jailen Ruth, who leads Hawthorne's impressive defensive front. Blountstown's effective rushing tandem of junior Amarion Hover (906 yards, 12 TDs) and senior Elam Johnson (821 yards, 8 TDs) makes for a tall task for Ruth (22 TFLs) and fellow defensive lineman Stanley Cooks (19 TFLs). And the story becomes much of the same for the Tigers, who will also have to rely on their stout defensive line to counter the Hornets' offensive attack. The Tigers have tallied more than 89 tackles behind the line of scrimmage with senior De'Ante Reed leading the way with 15.5 tackles for a loss. Reed and the rest of the defense will have their hands full against the Hornets, who field a massive offensive line with Rutgers football commit Mozell Williams and Darian Owens leading the push up front.

Buchholz (10-2) at Venice (8-3)

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Powell-Davis Stadium, Venice

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Since finishing its regular season with a bruising 49-28 loss to Jacksonville Bolles, Buchholz has been playing a different brand of football. The Bobcats have prevailed in a pair of one-point ball games against Pace and Bartram Trail, as well as a more convincing win against Crestview. But it was last week's 21-20 win over previously unbeaten Bartram Trail that indicates the Bobcats have found another gear heading down the stretch. After falling to Bartram Trail in the regular season, Buchholz found a way to recover three fumbles and went on to score points off two of them. And considering Venice has given up an average of 17.5 points per game, the Buchholz offense might need a hand from its defense to get a few extra possessions. Looking at Venice, it's likely those turnovers will have to come by way of fumbles considering senior quarterback Brooks Bentley has tossed one interception in 237 attempts this season. Bentley leads the Venice offense with 1,678 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, and is helped by a two-headed rushing attack of junior Alvin Johnson III (877 yards, 10 TDs) and Jamarice Wilder (690 yards, 11 TDs). Meanwhile, Buchholz senior quarterback Creed Whittemore has been a machine down the stretch. Since the loss to Bolles, Whittemore has thrown seven touchdown passes and run for seven more, while also notching takeaways in the defensive backfield.

Cocoa (9-3) at Bradford (12-1)

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: David Hurse Stadium, Starke

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This is perhaps the most intriguing matchup this week as both teams field stingy defenses, but also have explosive, yet very different, offenses. Cocoa's defense has allowed an average of just over 12 points per game, while Bradford has given up 48 points through all 13 of its games −of which nine have been shutouts. However, when the Tigers come to town, so does senior quarterback Blake Boda, who has passed for 3,444 yards, 45 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Cocoa has added another 1,400 yards of offense on the ground. But the biggest story is Boda's connection with junior receiver DayDay Farmer, a 4-star prospect who has fielded offers from Miami, Michigan State, Missouri, UCF and USF, among others. Boda and Farmer have connected on nine touchdowns this season. Facing an offense that's so pass-heavy will be a new challenge for Bradford, which has primarily seen run-heavy offenses this fall. The Tornadoes will have to lean on juniors Torin Brazell and Chason Clark, as well as senior Jarrin Alexander, to not only defend the back end, but to pressure Boda and try to get the Tigers' quarterback out of rhythm.

Lake City Columbia (9-3) at Lake Wales (13-0)

WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Legion Field, Lake Wales

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Tigers will be greeted with a massive challenge when they take Legion Field. The Highlanders aren't undefeated by chance. Lake Wales' defense has allowed 60 points and has posted six shutouts. Only two teams have scored more than one touchdown against the Highlanders, who have posted video game-like numbers this fall. Lake Wales' defense has tallied 300 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and are led by senior Sean Major, who has recorded 53 TFLs. On the back end, the Highlanders have forced 29 interceptions with junior Carlos Mitchell and senior Jaremiah Anglin Jr. leading the way with seven picks apiece. However, Columbia's defense has been a turnover machine as well. The Tigers have tallied 20 interceptions thanks to having a defense loaded with Division I talents such as Florida football commit Jaden Robinson and Indiana football commit Amare Ferrell. For folks who are fans of defensive dogfights, this matchup will be for you.

Union County (8-2) at Northview (12-0)

WHEN: Friday, 8 p.m. EST (7 p.m. CST)

WHERE: Tommy Weaver Memorial Stadium, Bratt

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Though the Chiefs are undefeated, the Tigers might have the tools needed to knock them off. Northview has an explosive offense led by senior quarterback Kaden Odum (1,343 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs) and senior running back Jemarkus Jefferson (2,093 rushing yards, 41 TDs). However, the Chiefs offense might experience some shell shock when it lines up against the Union County defense, which has allowed an average of just 15.2 points per game. The Tigers' defense is led up front by senior Marcus Strong, who has seen his recruitment explode this season while tallying 18.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 10.5 sacks. The Tigers defense has also forced 19 turnovers. Union County's offense, on the other hand, will be faced with a similar situation when it lines up against Northview, which has allowed an average of 14.25 points per game. Fortunately for the Tigers, they've proved all year that they can move the ball however they need to. Union County senior running back Rayvon Durant is about as steady as they come, having tallied 1,483 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Meanwhile, senior quarterback AJ Cortese isn't afraid to air the football out, or pull it down and make plays with his legs. Cortese has passed for 1,277 yards and 13 touchdowns, while adding 638 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.

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