By:  J. Daniel Pearson

It’s hard to believe but the 2023 high school football is nearing its midpoint this week. Tohopekaliga (3-0) is off to a hot start and hopes it continues this week as it hosts 0-4 Melbourne on Friday night.  In other action, Poinciana will play a rare doubleheader this week; while Osceola (0-4) will search for its first win of the season against Rockledge (2-2).  

Here is a look around the county:

Melbourne (0-4) at Tohopekaliga (3-0), Thursday, 7 p.m.

Looking strictly at records, this may look as a walkover game for the Tigers, but records can be deceiving.  Although Melbourne is 0-4 on the season, it should be noted that those four losses have come to some pretty good teams that have compiled a 12-4 record this season – with two of those lossess coming to undefeated Titusville and Merritt Island.  

Still Melbourne has had trouble scoring points this year (7.7), something that cannot be said about Tohopekaliga’s high-flying “Air Paradiso” offense — that has been averaging more than 48 points per game.  

Last week, the Tigers (3-0, 1-0) used six touchdown passes from sophomore Sabby Meassick to pound out a 41-19 win over St. Cloud.  Meassick was near perfect on the night, completing 44 of 53 passes (83%) for 484 yards and no interceptions.   He now has 1340 passing yards with 19 touchdowns and just one interception through three games this season.

Meassick is surrounded by offensive weapons.  Juniors Julian Nasco (26 receptions – 379 yards – 6 TDs) and Naeem Woulard (18-343-4) are both averaging more than 100 yards receiving per game and Churandy Duval is a threat both running the ball (9.4 yards per carry) or catching it (17 receptions-217 yards-5 TD) out of the backfield.  In all, five different Tigers have caught 15 or more passes this season.

Although the Tigers started also started 3-0 last season, second-year coach Anthony Paradiso says this year’s edition is much different from a year ago.  “We had a full off-season of strength and conditioning after last year,” he noted.  “There’s no question we are bigger, stronger and faster than last year, but we take that with a grain a salt.  We know we have a long way to go.”

St. Cloud (1-2) at Winter Springs (1-4), Friday, 7 p.m.

The St. Cloud Bulldogs will be out to even their record when they travel to Winter Springs on Friday to face the 1-4 Bears.   St. Cloud coach Mike Short says he is anxious to get back on the field after the Bulldogs dropped its district opener to Tohopekaliga (41-19) on Friday.

“They will present a good challenge for us,” Short said.  “They are pretty big on both sides of the ball and they are well coached.  Winter Springs is an interesting team in that they always seem to have two or three studs on both sides of the ball and the same thing applies to this year.”

Short said that his team will have to do a better job of taking care of the “little things” in order to win.  “I don’t like using excuses, but we shot ourselves in the foot numerous times against Tohopekaliga.  Simple things like not covering on-sides kicks, not getting out of position in our pass coverage,  and not getting our blocking schemes down.  They all played a role in the defeat.”

On a positive note, RB TJ Griffin (1 touchdown) and Alex Springs (2 touchdown receptions) had solid games for the Bulldogs.

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

Poinciana(0-2) at Tenneroc (0-3), Friday, 7 p.m.

A confluence of different factors will result in Poinciana (0-2) playing two games in five days this week.  With Orange County schools off last Friday, all county football games were moved to Thursday night.  Unfortunately, Poinciana’s game with Horizon was postponed due to severe lightning storms that night, resulting in a rescheduling for Monday night (9/18).   The Eagles will have a quick turnaround, as they will travel to Teneroc (near Lakeland) for a Friday night game.

Through two games, junior WR Ernest Nunn has been averaging 123 yards per game receiving (13-246-2 TD); while Akeem Knox is averaging 73 yards rushing per game (24-146-2 TD).  Junior quarterback Cameron Brown is throwing for 213 yards per game with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Liberty (0-4) at Celebration (1-3), Friday, 7:30 p.m.

In what will be a matchup of two extremely similar teams, Celebration will host Liberty on Thursday night.  Both teams are extremely young and have struggled this season, as Charger head coach Dee Hart continues a rebuild in his first year where he has had to institute a major culture change after the team went 0-10 and scored just 12 points last season.    Celebration’s Jeremy Palmer lost 95% of his offense from last year and is also playing numerous freshman and sophomores in the starting lineup.

The Storm did manage to post their first win of the season last week, defeating Space Coast, 19-6.  In that game, Celebration scored two defensive touchdowns as freshman Kobe Orr had a pick six and Lucas Morton-Carlson recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.   Morton-Carlson also scored on a reception.   

Although Liberty did not get a win, head coach Dee Hart called the 46-13 loss to Davenport a moral victory of sorts.  “The fact is we are getting better and better every week and the kids are still buying in to what we are trying to do,” Hart said.  “Watching the film of our Davenport game, our kids realized that some correctable mistakes kept us from several other scoring opportunities.  We also scored more points in that game than we did all last season, which is another reason for optimism.”

Both coaches are looking forward to Thursday’s game as an opportunity for the next step in development.  “Getting a win and learning how to win is our next goal,” Hart said.  “Celebration is a really well-coached team and will be ready for us, but we are both young squads.  The team that can make the fewest mistakes will have a chance to win.”   

“The win over Space Coast gave us a big lift,” Palmer said about his Storm team.  “We like to believe that if we play our game, we have a chance to win every game.  Liberty will be a good test for us.”

West Port-Ocala (2-2) vs. Gateway (0-3), at Austin Tindall Park, Thursday, 7 p.m.

A young Gateway squad finally gets its first home game of the season (sort of) when it hosts Ocala West Port on Thursday night at Austin Tindall Park.  Marlin Roberts’ team fell to 0-3 last week with a 50-0 road loss to powerful district favorite Auburndale (3-0) on Friday.   

“It wasn’t a huge surprise, they were bigger, faster, stronger and a whole lot deeper than we were,” Roberts said.  “About the best thing I can say is that despite being over-matched physically, we played hard the entire game.”   

Roberts said he was proud of how hard his young running backs Christian Charity and Deshawn Reese performed.  “They weren’t able to get a lot of yards against Auburndale’s front but they were not afraid to square their pads up and attack.”  On the down side, the Panthers lost talented freshman Christian Arroyo to a broken leg in the game.

As for West Port, Roberts expects a tough challenge from the Wolf Pack, which is coming off a 34-27 win over South Lake on Friday.  “They have some good athletes and are solid on both sides of the ball,” the veteran coach said.  “The main thing is the numbers again. Their roster is a lot deeper than ours.”

Rockledge (2-2) at Osceola (0-4), Thursday, 7 p.m.

Osceola will be looking for its first win of the season on Thursday, when it hosts regional power Rockledge (2-2) on Thursday night at Markus Paul Stadium.  The Kowboys dropped their fourth consecutive game of the season last Friday, 26-0, to defending state champion Lakeland (26-0).

Playing without almost a dozen injured starting players, the Kowboys fell behind 26-0 at the half but rallied defensively to pitch a second-half shutout.  However with four of its top five backs not available, Osceola failed to manage much of an offense – with three big turnovers killing each of their three scoring opportunities in the game.

There may be a little light at the end of the tunnel, as all-state running back Taevion Swint should return to the lineup.  Swint missed three games with a pre-season knee injury, before being absent last week with a death in the family.  Several other starters could also return this week from injury.  Defensively, Jalen Bell and Daniel Morales continue to have outstanding seasons for the Kowboys.

“We still have a lot to play for, as we haven’t started our district schedule yet,” head coach Eric Pinellas said.  “We continue to work hard, hopefully get some players back and try to make a run.”

Wiregrass Ranch (2-1) at Harmony (1-2), Friday, 7 p.m.

Coming off its bye week, Harmony returns to action with a non-district game against Wiregrass Ranch (Wesley Chapel).   Led by quarterback Luke Knight – a US Military Academy commit – is coming off a 54-34 win over Mitchell.   

“We had a solid bye week, it gave us a chance to heal up a little and get ready for district play in a couple of weeks,” Longhorn coach Nick Lippert said.  “Wiregrass has some decent size and Knight is an exceptional player.  But if we can minimize our mistakes, we can be competitive.”