By:  J. Daniel Pearson

Week four of the high school regular season finds two intriguing games on the schedule as the Tohopekaliga Tigers (2-0) look to remain undefeated as they host St. Cloud (1-1) in the district opener for both teams; while Osceola — which is off to an uncharacteristic 0-3 start– will have its hands full when it hosts defending Class 4S State Champion at Markus Paul Stadium at 7 p.m.  

Here is a look around the county:

St. Cloud (1-1) at Tohopekaliga (2-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Originally slated as a home game for the Bulldogs, St. Cloud switched its 4S, District 10 opener to an away game as construction continues on its new turf field and the team did not want to deal with a lack of locker room facilities at Austin Tindall Field in case of inclement weather.  

Both of these teams are coming off impressive wins last weekend, after having their Week 2 games postponed due to weather.  St. Cloud manhandled Liberty, 42-7 last Friday; while Tohopekaliga jumped out to a 35-0 lead and cruised past Foundation Academy, 49-21.

This will be the second year that the schools have played in the same district with Osceola and Celebration and the game most likely will be an elimination game for the district title.   The Tigers took advantage of some early mistakes to beat the Bulldogs, 42-7 last year.  St. Cloud head coach Mike Short knows the game will be a challenge.  “They have both speed and skill on the outside and their running back (Churandy Duval) is a load.  They are really good at mixing it up. Solid tackling will be a key for us, we got to keep their quick passes to three or four yards, not let them turn them into 15 or 20 yards gains.”

As for the Tigers, coach Anthony Paradiso says his team will be worried less about what St. Cloud does and more concerned about their own execution. .  “On a week to week basis, we really don’t pay attention to our opponents, rather our focus is on what we are trying to execute.  The mantra for us is always the same, we want to get better each day and each week.”

Both teams had key performances from star players last week.  

For the Tigers, sophomore quarterback Sabby Meassick threw for 536 yards and seven touchdowns in the game.  Three different receivers went over the 100-yard mark in receptions, including Julian Nasco (13-175-3 TD), Naeem Woulard (5-130-1) and Duval (9-129-3), who also rushed for 103 yards.  Meassick now has 13 touchdown passes and one interception in two games. St. Cloud’s Logan King completed 10 of 18 passes for 174 yards while accounting for three touchdowns to back a running game that rushed for 265 yards.  St. Cloud forced four turnovers in the game, including a pick six by Bryce Williams. 

Lakeland (1-2) at Osceola (0-3), Friday, 7:00 p.m.

Lakeland is the defending state champion and handed Osceola two of their four losses in last season – including a 14-7 win in the state semifinals.  It will be the fourth game in a row for the Kowboys against a state playoff team from a year ago,

Osceola trailed state power Jones by just seven at halftime but gave up a 90-yard touchdown return on the opening second half kickoff and then fell behind 21-0 on a long touchdown run before mounting a comeback that fell just short in a 28-20 loss.

The Kowboys continued to be injury riddled, playing Jones without six starters – including all-state running back Taevion Swint, who has yet to play in 2023.  “We are slowly starting to get healthier, hopefully by the fifth or sixth week we can get most of those players everyone back,” Coach Eric Pinellas said. 

One of the bright spots in the Osceola lineup has been the play of senior Jalen Bell.  A true highbred player, Bell has lined up at defensive end, outside linebacker, safety and corner this year.  Switched to corner for the Jones game, Bell shutdown the Tigers top receiver, had one interception and created another one with a batted down pass.

“We felt we had to move Jalen to corner which means we had to play a sophomore at linebacker.  On one play, that guy missed an assignment and that led to a long touchdown run.  It’s been sort of a theme all year.  We are playing a lot of sophomores that are getting on the job training in varsity games and it has cost us,” Pinellas said.  “On the other hand, they are getting better every game and we are getting closer to having most of our injured players back.  Despite the record, we know we have a lot to still play for, including a district title.”

Davenport (0-2) at Liberty (0-3), Friday, 7 p.m.

Both teams will be seeking their first win of the season.  Chargers coach Dee Hart said he was pleased with the fight of his young team despite the lopsided loss to St. Cloud last week.  “We were down 28-0 and the game was essentially out of reach, but we executed a really nice long drive to score,” Hart said.  “Our kids are buying into what we are trying to establish and that is the first step of the process to turning this thing around.”

Poinciana (0-2) at Horizon (3-0), Thursday, 7 p.m.

Inconsistencies on offense cost Poinciana in its first game and some sloppy play on defense cost the Eagles in their 43-20 loss to Hardee County last week.  Things will not get any easier this week, as Poinciana travels to upstart Horizon in Winter Garden on Friday night.  The school opened in 2021 and they went 2-8 in their inaugural season, but have won 10 of their last 13 games and are off to a 3-0 start this year.

Beeken said he anticipates a tough game against Horizon, especially for having a short week to prepare.  “We are making some changes on both sides of the ball and that becomes tougher when you are on a short week,” Beeken noted. “Horizon is a solid team and they are as good as their 3-0 record indicates.  Do I think we can play with them? Yes.  Do I think we can win? Yes.  But we are going to have to fix the errors we have been making on both sides of the ball and play a lot better than we have in the first two games.”

In the Hardee County loss, the Eagles moved the ball through the air as Cameron Brown passed for 296 yards and three touchdowns.  Ernest Nunn caught five for 161 yards and two scores and freshman Chance Frazier caught a 75-yard scoring pass.  “We moved the ball okay, but we certainly did not play very well on defense.”

Gateway (0-2) at Auburndale (3-0), 7 p.m., Friday

The Panthers will be underdogs when they open district play up this week against powerful Auburndale.   Last week, the Gateway fell to 0-2 with a 51-18 defeat to the hand of Orange Park’s Ridgeview.   Coach Marlin Roberts cited the play of running backs Chris Charity and Deshawn Reese; as well as linebacker Tristian Martinez in the loss.  

“We are extremely young but we have some talented players,” Roberts noted.  “The key will be for these kids to grow in the program.  Over the past several years we had a lot of good players transfer out for various reasons.  If we can keep this core together, we have a chance to grow.”

Space Coast (0-3) at Celebration (0-3), 7 p.m., Friday

Celebration will be looking for its first win this weekend when they host Space Coast at 7:30 p.m.  Both teams are young and have struggled to put points on the board, as Celebration has been shutout three times this season, including last week’s 49-0 loss to Titusville; while Space Coast has been outscored 116-13 this year.

Bye Week:   Harmony

A young Harmony team (1-2) reaches its bye week after a 47-0 loss to Palm Bay.  They return to action next Friday with a home game against Wiregrass Ranch at 7 p.m.