By: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola
A familiar opponent will stand in the way as the Osceola Kowboys (10-3) try to return to the state championship game for the second time in three years as they travel to Lakeland to face the top-ranked and undefeated Dreadnaughts (12-0) in the FHSAA Class 4S state semifinals on Friday night at 7 p.m.
The game is a rematch of a Sept. 16 regular season game, where the Kowboys spotted Lakeland a 14-0 first quarter lead and fought back but eventually lost 25-22.
“There are some subtle advantages to playing them a second time, but not necessarily in the ways you think. At the end of the season and there’s no question they are probably a better team than the one we lost to in September. But we are also a better team than we were in September. We know their personnel but they know ours too, so those things are basically a wash,” Osceola coach Eric Pinellas said. “The real advantage comes from the fact that we have played them on the road, just as we faced Jones on the road, just as we played Rockledge on the road. We understand what it’s like to play in hostile environments because we have played in those environments all season so the crowd and the noise should not be an issue and that’s the main advantage.”
Instead Pinellas believes the most important things in the game will be taking care of the ball and not falling behind early. In the September loss, Osceola turned the ball over four times, was stopped on fourth down three other times and saw its kicking team shank two punts that rolled a total of eight yards. And although Osceola also forced four turnovers, they only turned those turnovers into seven points.
“With a turnover and a bad punt, we spotted them 14 points early in the game and we never could quite recover from those errors,” Pinellas said. “You simply cannot do that against a great team and think it’s going to be okay. We need to establish our running game early, finish drives and take advantage of any turnovers we create. Conversely, we need to make sure they have to drive the length of the field when they have the ball.”
Since the narrow win over Osceola, Lakeland has been on a big-time roll. They have won those nine games by an average of 39.7 points. In the post-season, they have met minimal opposition in outscoring playoff opponents 137-20 in beating Lake Gibson (49-0), Mitchell (47-10) and Lake Minneola (41-10).
Allowing just 7.5 points per game this season, the Lakeland defense has racked up 132 tackles-for-loss and 56.5 quarterback sacks. The Lakeland defense features standout veteran players all over the field including defensive linemen Larry Jones III (21 TFL, 14 QS), Jack Proctor (17 TFL, 8.5 QS), Guerlyn Milfort (10 TFL, 4 QS) and Idris King (21.5 TFL, 11 QS); linebacker RJ Kelly (8.5 TFL) and defensive backs Michael Singleton (9.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QS) and Cormani McClain (2 INT, 5 PD).
McClain, a Miami Hurricane commit and a 5-star recruit, is considered the nation’s top high school defensive back and is rarely challenged by opposing quarterbacks.
As stingy as the Lakeland defense is, its offense is highly efficient and has been scoring more than 42 points a game. Senior quarterback Zach Pleuss doesn’t throw the ball a ton (90-133, 1390 yards), but he is extremely accurate (67.7% completion percentage). His favorite target is senior Tyler Williams, who has 25 receptions for 373 yards and six touchdowns this season.
Lakeland’s running game is sparked by three really good players and they are averaging more than 200 yards a game. Those players include senior Don’Ares Johnson (67-583-7 TD); and juniors Markell Johnson (69-559-8 TD) and D’marius Rucker (80-864-11 TD). Three of Johnson’s touchdowns came in the first half of the Osceola game. Collectively they gain a healthy nine yards a carry.
“They run a lot of counters so, it is going to be vitally important that we play disciplined, assignment football on Friday,” Pinellas said. “We need to make sure they earn every yard and point they get.”
It will remain interesting to see if the tougher road that Osceola has faced in the post-season works to their advantage. Although the Kowboys won easily last week against Vero Beach in the Region 3 Final (Read about that victory here: https://www.positivelyosceola.com/osceola-kowboys-are-region-3-champions-after-dominating-vero-beach-31-7/ ), they were pushed to the limit in both the regional quarterfinal game by DeLand (30-28) and semifinal game by Treasure Coast (10-7).
Osceola is 3-2 in one-score games this season but has won their last three. They also faced 2022 playoff teams in all eight of their regular season non-district games. “Again I am not really sure if being in all those tight games this season is an advantage per se, but we purposely put together a tough schedule to prepare this team for a playoff run,” the second-year coach said.
Pinellas also added that last week’s game against Vero was perhaps his team’s best overall effort of the season. “We ran the ball well, took care of it and forced four turnovers on defense,” he said. “I still don’t think we have played our best football yet, but we are getting close. We certainly will need the same type of effort this week to get past Lakeland and get to our ultimate goal.”
If Osceola wins on Friday, they will face the winner of the Venice – Gainesville Bucholz game in the 4S State Championship next weekend at DRV PNK Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale.