Lake Wales coach Rod Shafer has been around long enough to know that at some point during the season, there comes a game when his football team takes ownership of its own performance.
A time when the Highlander seniors step to the fore and help lead the Orange and Black toward its annual goal of a deep playoff run.
Shafer is never quite sure when that moment comes, a fact complicated a bit this fall since there are only five seniors on the roster that is one win away from the school’s third-ever trip to the state football championships.
The moment came this year in playing district rival Auburndale. The Bloodhounds had upset Lake Wales in a similar winner-take-all league game in 2012, but this Highlander team made sure it didn’t happen twice.
“It came late, but some of the seniors were hurt,” Shafer recalled. “They decided ahead of time against Auburndale. They just started to believe they could beat everyone.”
That game, not so coincidentally, was the first in what is now a six-game win streak which has propelled Lake Wales into Friday night’s Class 5A showdown with powerful American Heritage, a private school based in Plantation. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Legion Field. The game will be broadcast on WBF (1130 AM and 102.9 FM), which also streams the game call on their website live.
The Highlanders earned their seventh ever trip to the state’s final four following an exciting 34-23 win over previously undefeated Merritt Island at Legion Field last weekend.
“There’s no doubt they’re a special team,” Shafer said of Heritage. “They’re loaded in a lot of places. But our kids will go after them. I believe whoever wins this game will win the state championship.”
Heritage is the highest ranked team remaining in the Class 5A playoffs. The Patriots were ranked No. 3 in the final Associated Press rankings issued at the end of the regular season. No. 1 Pensecola Catholic lost last weekend, and No. 2 Godby was upset in the very first round.
Keeping the Patriots high flying offense on the sidelines as much as possible will be a key, something that the Highlander’s veer offense can do when it’s clicking.
“We’ve got to not give them many chances,” Shafer said, pointing out that in his club’s last two wins, the Highlanders went on long, time consuming fourth-quarter drives that put the games away. “We’ve got to do ball control because that team’s too explosive. And, they’re one of those teams that get big plays. If we can keep it close, we’ve got a shot. It’s an exciting time, you’re final four in the state, especially with the way our season started.”
The injury-riddled regular season included losses to Haines City, Winter Haven, Mainland and Ridge Community. At one point, the Highlanders record was 3-4. And while every team goes through injuries, it was who got hurt that hampered Lake Wales most during the regular season.
“We lost six starters, and they were all our (NCAA) Division I kids,” Shafer said. “We finally just said, you know what, we have to win the district. I’ve said from the beginning I think we’re the best team in Polk County and have been all along. But, when you don’t have the people, we’re in trouble.”
The Highlanders rely heavily on the run, but sprinkle in more than just a few passes, which produces its own share of big plays.
“When we have Walker, Riley and Staton at receiver, we’re as good as anybody,” Shafer said.
It’s likely Lake Wales will need another big performance from its offensive backfield, including running backs Justin Henderson, Earnest “Bo” Hamilton and quarterback Railond Garrett.
Henderson has 1,536 yards so far this season, the second straight year the junior has led the team in rushing. At 5-foot-9, 217, he’s tough to bring down but still surprises defenses with his speed.
“He’s a beast. He’s all legs and knees,” Shafer noted.
Hamilton will also play a key role, as he did Friday against Merritt Island.
“He’s a phenomenal running back. They all start loading up on Justin and I’ll tell you, Bo will hurt you,” Shafer added.
Garrett continues to blossom under center, and is a dangerous threat both throwing and running.
“He’s putting the ball on the money,” Shafer said. “He’s got a big arm. He can take one step and throw it 70 yards. He’s played well down the stretch. You can’t get to where we are without a quarterback.”
Friday’s winner will take on the winner of the other Class 5A semi-final between Lakewood and Clay. The championship game will be held at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl at 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13.
Heritage is deep, talented and athletic, led by quarterback Torrance Gibson who has received offers from just about every major college program in the country it seems, from Ohio State to Miami and everyone in between. He runs a 4.36 40, according to published reports, and is an ESPN four-star recruit.
Sony Michel is the featured back, and has run over 200 years in each of the team’s last two playoff wins including 236 yards on just 18 carries in their 41-7 win over Hardee last Friday. He is already committed to attend the University of Georgia. He has rushed for 1,578 yards so far this season.
They are far from the Patriots only threats however. At 5-foot-7, Travis Jackson is more of a “scat” back, but is also a threat. Isaiah McKenzie is the top receiver, although there are several Patriot pass catchers who have similar numbers.
Heritage led only 10-7 at the half last week, and Hardee actually led at one point 7-0.
Heritage has only one appearance in the state championship game, in 1998 when they lost to Class 2A champion North Florida Christian. Lake Wales has two state appearances, but likewise does not have a state title on its balance sheet.