The Lake Wales Highlanders have wrapped up a football season that went from being a matter of survival to a success story.
LWHS finished the year with a 9-5 record, which is not overly impressive. But they can point to injuries as the problem in all five losses, including the 49-16 defeat at the hands of American Heritage last Friday at Legion Field.
Somehow, the Highlanders made it all the way to semifinals of the state 5A playoffs. That’s a pretty good accomplishment for a team that was just 3-4 and seemed destined to go nowhere midway through the season. And an injury played a major role in their season-ending loss.
“Our kids did a tremendous job,” says LWHS coach Rod Shafer. “It was certainly surprising to a lot of people who thought that they wouldn’t get this far.”
At one point during the season, Lake Wales was down to 28 varsity players. It had three of its quickest players who were defensive backs and wide receivers out at the same time.
“Those backups did a terrific job,” notes Shafer. “In my 39 years of coaching, this was one of the most rewarding years I’ve had. Our coaching staff did a great job and the players responded when we needed them to step up.”
The Highlanders knew they had their hands full in playing American Heritage, which has a 13-1 record.
“They were good. We knew we had to play a perfect game. And it was decided on special teams,” Shafer points out.
One of the determining factors for LWHS was an injury to kicker Jonathan Smith, one of the smaller players on the team at 5-11, 160 pounds. The senior suffered a broken wrist making a tackle two weeks earlier in a playoff win against Jesuit.
With a cast on his arm, Smith did the kicking, but he was only a shell of himself. Normally, the Highlanders don’t worry about kickoff coverage because Smith boots the ball through the end zone. But he wasn’t able to do that and the Patriots returned two kickoffs, including the game opener, for touchdowns. Not only could Smith not kick as far as usual, but he had no intentions of getting involved in any tackles with his fractured wrist, so Lake Wales had 10 tacklers on the field.
And Smith couldn’t do the punting because he couldn’t catch and handle the ball on the snap. The backup punter had a pair of punts that went only 2 yards each, giving Heritage good field position several times and leading to two easy touchdowns.
“You can’t win games when you give away 28 points on special teams,” Shafer says. “Who would have thought that with all the injuries we had that a broken arm by our kicker would make the difference in the end?”
But don’t expect anyone to be mourning. Already, there is a lot of positive talk about next season. This team had only seven seniors and several of them saw very little playing time. The most notable seniors are starting quarterback Railond Garrett and backup Ryan Marell, leaving the Highlanders without anyone who has ever taken a varsity snap.
Also gone are receiver Davi’on Riley and defensive backs Shaka McGriff and Dedric Brinson.
Justin Henderson, who rushed for over 1,500 yards this season, will be one of the leading players who return, along with Earnest “Bo” Hamilton.
Most of the linemen and the nucleus of the team do return. DJ Irvis is on the inside track on being the quarterback next season.
“We’ll figure it out,” Shafer says.
He’s got seven months to work on that. And during that time, he’ll reflect on this season too.
“I think American Heritage will win this thing. We almost got there. We had a chance but in the end, we just couldn’t overcome the injuries.”