By:  J. Daniel Pearson

It was mixed reviews for both the St. Cloud and Osceola high school football teams as they went through their final dress rehearsals on Friday night prior to the start of the 2023 regular season.

At Austin-Tindall Park, St. Cloud dropped a 34-6 decision to Haines City; while the Kowboys lost a 16-15 decision to state power Apopka in its pre-season Kickoff Classic. Both games were exhibitions and do not count on the regular season record.

“To tell you the truth, I really thought we played well tonight,” Osceola head coach Eric Pinellas said.  “We had a few first half jitters but I thought we moved the ball well on offense and I thought our defense put up an excellent effort against a really talented, well-coached team.

Trailing 3-0 in the game, quarterback Cam West hit Notorious Reynolds on a slant for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead.  Although the Kowboys would fall behind 10-7 and never regain the lead, Pinellas said he was happy with his team’s effort.  “Our offensive line played really well and we were able to establish a running game.  Both of our quarterbacks made some plays and our young secondary really did some good things.  With only two starters back between our defensive line and linebacker group, I thought they also played extremely well.  For a first game against a really good opponent, I saw a lot of positives out there.”

Things were not as close for the Bulldogs in dropping a 28-point decision to the Hornets in their pre-season game.

The contest was close in the first half, however.  After Haines City took a 6-0 as quarterback Sumari Wilson capped a six-play, 55-yard drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Keshon Taylor,  St. Cloud would take over with 7:48 remaining in the first half.  Logan King would direct a 16-play drive that included three impressive conversions on third down; but the drive would end as time expired on 15-yard line with King fumbling on the final play of the half.

“That was sort of a momentum killer for us and in second-guessing we did not manage the clock as well as we should have,” St. Cloud coach Mike Short said.  “We were scheduled to get the ball to open the second half and even if we just kicked a field goal – we would have had the ball and a chance to take the lead. In retrospect, we should have managed the clock better and we came up empty on the drive.”

Taking a 6-0 lead into the locker room at the half, Haines City recorded a defensive stop on St. Cloud’s opening drive in the third quarter. Wilson would then set himself up for a 1-yard touchdown run after completing a 55-yard pass to Taylor to make it a 12-0 game.

St. Cloud was forced to punt on its next possession, but the kick never got off after a dropped snap from center.  Taking over on the Bulldog 26, Wilson needed just three plays to make it 20-0 as Deonte Fielder scored on a 4-yard run.

St. Cloud showed some resilience on its next possession. The Bulldogs got a 27-yard touchdown pass from King to junior Alex Springs to cut the lead to 20-6.   The play capped an 8-play drive where King completed four of seven for 49 yards on the drive.  Springs, a transfer and former basketball player at Osceola High, caught seven passes for 79 yards on the night.  “He has a chance to be a special football player,” Short said of the wide receiver.

Any chance of a St. Cloud comeback was thwarted on the next Haines City possession.  A Ja’Marius Knight 47-yard run set Wilson’s third touchdown pass of the night to make it a 28-6 game.  Haines City would tack on a late touchdown for the final margin of victory.

“Regardless of the score, we can take some positives out of tonight,” Short said.  “In the first half, our defense did play pretty good and tackled well.  Offensively, we moved the ball but mistakes in our kicking game hurt.  We played tonight’s game with two defensive starters out and that was also a factor.  The good thing is that it was a pre-season game and doesn’t count. We will learn from our mistakes and move on.”

Both the Kowboys and the Bulldogs will face tough opening opponents.  Osceola opens on the road against a very talented Treasure Coast team – one of seven 2022 playoff teams on the Kowboys schedule  Osceola faced the Titans twice last season – winning 14-5 at home in the regular season and taking a 10-7 win the playoffs.

St. Cloud also opens on the road, traveling to Baron Collier, a 34-18 winner over Estero in its season classic.  “They run a similar offense to ours and it should be a great challenge,” Short noted.  “They do play on turf and like to play fast, so it will be a challenge for our defense.”