Justin Henderson turned Black Friday into Orange and Black Friday at Legion Field, and as a result, the Lake Wales Highlanders are for the seventh time in school history headed to the state football semifinals.
Henderson scored two times, and made several huge defensive plays, to lead the Highlanders to a well-earned 34-23 over previously undefeated Merritt Island in the Class 5A regional finals.
Lake Wales, 9-4 on the season but winners of six straight now, will host American Heritage, which rolled past Hardee Friday, in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff next Friday. The game will be broadcast of WBF 1130 AM and 102.9 FM.
The winner of that one will advance to the state championships in Orlando the second weekend in December.
Lake Wales finished a wild first half with a one-touchdown lead, and never gave that up, despite the efforts of the Mustangs who were ranked third in the final Associated Press poll of Class 5A teams at the end of the regular season.
Lake Wales needed less than two minutes of the third quarter to extend its lead as quarterback Railond Garrett lofted a perfect pass down the left sideline to the waiting arms of Darion Staton for a 46-yard touchdown strike. The Highlanders started the third quarter taking the Mustangs kick at their own 20, and needed just five plays to score — one of them a 15-yard run by little used Eddie Joseph.
But on the ensuing kick off, Shaq Jones took it 98 yards for a Merritt Island Score to keep the visitors in the game, trailing 27-20 with 9:55 to play in the third.
The Mustangs defense then held Lake Wales to a three and out, and a short punt set up Merritt Island at the Highlander 35. But that scoring threat was snuffed at the two yard line as D.J. Irvis made a diving interception.
Merritt Island moved a bit closer with two minutes gone in the fourth quarter after taking over on the Highlander 40. The Mustangs drove to a first-and goal at the Lake Wales five, but the defense stiffened and Merritt Island had to settle for a 20-yard field goal with exactly 10 minutes to go to trim its deficit to 27-23.
The Mustangs looked like they might really swing things their way as the Highlanders lost a fumble on their first play of their ensuing possession, but Henderson made sure that opportunity was lost with what might have been the key play of the game when he dropped Mustang quarterback Nick Smith for a 15-yard loss on a quarterback sack. Merritt Island punted it away two plays later, and never got the ball back until there was less than 90 seconds to play.
And by that time Bo Hamilton scored on a one-yard plunge with 1:15 to go to put the Highlanders up 34-23. After the sack punt, Lake Wales marched 80 yards in 14 plays, all on the ground, although the Highlanders were the beneficiaries of a clear pass interference call on a third down play from the Mustangs 20 that kept the drive alive.
The first half was perhaps a bit more offensively explosive than some figured.
The Mustangs broke on top with 2:56 to play in the first quarter as Smith found T.J. Bell on a 14-yard crossing pattern to cap off an eight-play, 68-yard drive. The pass came on a 3rd-and-11 play from the Highlander 14. Smith had the big play on the drive, a 25 yard keeper to the Lake Wales 13.
The Highlanders had an immediate answer, at least for the touchdown, taking exactly five minutes to march 74 yards in 12 plays. Every inch came on the ground, and included runs from Garrett of 14, 9 and 11 yards. Henderson capped the possession with a two-yard TD plunge, but the extra point was blocked, and the Highlanders found themselves down 7-6 with 9:47 to go before intermission.
But two minutes later, Lake Wales found themselves on top thanks to a highlight-reel punt return by Staton who took at it’s own 41 and danced around several would-be tacklers in front of the Lake Wales bench and raced 59 yards to paydirt. Kasey Maldonado banged through the point after try to give the hosts a 13-7 lead with 7:47 to go in the second quarter.
But a miscue late in the half appeared to cost the Highlanders a chance to go to the lockeroom with the lead as Merritt Island recovered a Lake Wales fumble at its own 35, and needed just three plays to tie the game at 13-all. Smith capped the quick possession with a 12-yard touchdown run, but Henderson blocked the extra point try to leave the game tied with 1:17 to go before the half.
And it was Henderson who made sure Lake Wales did go to the break on top, escaping several tackles before getting into the clear and outracing the Mustang defense on a 64-yard touchdown run on the first play after the kickoff to give the Orange and Black a 20-13 lead. Henderson had 105 yards in the first half unofficially.
Lake Wales missed a scoring chance on their first possession of the game when they drove to the Mustangs 26 on a drive that included a 14-yard pass completion to Staton and an eight-yard run by Henderson. But two incomplete passes and an illegal procedure penalty pushed the Highlanders back to the 31, and a 48-yard field goal try was blocked.
Both teams have a long and storied playoff history. Lake Wales has earned six appearances in the state semifinals, most recently in 2009. They also went in 1993, 1994, 1996, and 2001.
Merritt Island has three state titles, but hasn’t won one since 1979. Their last trip to the semi-finals was in 1994.