Photo Credit: John Faith
Academy at the Lakes weathered chilly conditions and an undefeated opponent from Jacksonville to capture the school’s first-ever eight-man state football championship.
An unwavering defensive performance — along with four combined touchdowns from freshman quarterback Jalen Brown and senior running back/linebacker Daniel Gonzalez — propelled the Wildcats to a 30-9 victory over the Old Plank Christian Academy Defenders in the Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) state championship on Dec. 9, at Southeastern University in Lakeland.
It was evident early, the Wildcats were the better team.
Academy at the Lakes scored on its first offensive possession —a 30-yard touchdown pass from Brown to freshman Jordan Oladokun, less than 7 minutes into the first quarter.
Brown added to the Wildcats lead late in the second quarter, diving into the end zone on a one-yard quarterback sneak — set up by his own 30-yard improvised run just a few plays earlier.
The team’s second scoring drive marked the “turning point” of the game, Wildcats head coach Shawn Brown said.
“I think things were kind of going back and forth, then (Jalen) made that big run,” he said. “It was 8-0, then he kind of made that big run. I think it changed the whole momentum at that point.”
Old Plank had chances to narrow the gap, but was continuously plagued by its own mistakes in the form of penalties and turnovers, giving the Wildcats solid field position and extra offensive possessions.
A prime example: with the clock winding down in the second quarter, Old Plank quarterback Daniel Bosque fumbled just short of the end zone as time expired, preserving the Wildcats 16-0 lead at the half.
A costly turnover early in the second half made matters worse for the visiting Defenders, who entered the game 8-0.
Old Plank’s John Kilpatrick fumbled a punt return at the 25-yard line that was recovered by the Wildcats. The ensuing drive led to a 16-yard rushing touchdown by Gonzalez, just minutes into the third quarter.
Old Plank’s undisciplined play became chippy at times; the team was flagged for multiple late hits and facemasks.
The Wildcats didn’t let some heated moments affect them, however.
“It could’ve gotten bad, and we could’ve lost our composure, and I think if we lose our composure, we lose that game,” Shawn Brown said. “We stayed true to what we do, kept the kids positive, and tried to walk away without losing their temper, and I think if we lose our temper, then we lose that game.”
Up 22-0, the Wildcats held the Defenders scoreless into the fourth quarter, until 244-pound fullback Quinton Sterling rushed two yards for a touchdown at the 9:22 mark.
“I think our defense, inevitably, is what won us this game, no doubt,” Gonzalez said. “We got some really key interceptions and really key three-and-outs, and that’s what won us this game. It wasn’t just the offense this game; we came together as a team.”
Gonzalez, named the game’s Most Valuable Player (MVP), for extra measure scored his second rushing touchdown of the night with less than 5 minutes left, all but sealing the win.
The two schools last met during the 2016 regular season, where Old Plank defeated Academy at the Lakes in that matchup, 41-20.
Even with the three-score margin, the state championship was closer than most Wildcats games this season; they won their first two playoff games by 48 and 40 points, respectively.
“This is the best defensive team we’ve ever played this season,” Gonzalez said of Old Plank. “I’ve got to give them credit, but in the end we were the better team.”
And, despite making monumental plays on offense and defense, Gonzalez credited younger teammates for the team’s historic victory.
“It’s really interesting because the players that stepped up were all the young guys,” said Gonzalez, a senior team captain.
“We got the corner, Jordan Oladokun. We got Jalen Brown. And, those were the two people that really stepped up on offense and defense. They stepped up on both sides of the ball, and that’s the coolest part. It was the young people that stepped up.”
Brown, who took several big hits at quarterback, said the team never gave up.
“When we got knocked down, we got back up,” the freshman quarterback said. “The game started off a little tough, but we pushed through it, and our momentum carried us to this good victory.”
Gonzalez, who sported a ‘victory cigar’ after the game, was one of many players overwhelmed with excitement and joy in postgame festivities.
“I can’t even describe the feeling right now. I got the MVP. I got it all right now. I wouldn’t want anything more,” he said. “This is the best way to end my year. This is the best way to end a football season.”
He is one of the nine seniors on the roster and one of a handful who’ve been with the program since their freshman year.
The other seniors are: Thomas Kramer, Joel Eason, Evan Lutz, Tanner Bianchi, Isaiah Smith, Zachary Moore, Jack Passero and Cooper Weber.
Some, including Gonzalez, had never played organized football before joining the Wildcats program.
“It’s awesome, because that’s my first true graduating class. They’ve come a long way,” said Shawn Brown, who’s in his fourth season as head coach.
The 2017 campaign signaled a complete turnaround for the Wildcats football program.
Academy at the Lakes went 2-8 in 2016, after finishing 4-7 and 3-5 the prior two seasons.
Coach Brown added: “To watch these kids as freshman, and some of them not knowing anything at all with football, to being like that doormat and getting pounded on. There are no words I’ve got to explain it. I’m speechless. I thought I’d have more to say. We reached our goal.”
The football program’s last state title came in 2006, when Academy at the Lakes played in the six-man ranks.
Academy at the Lakes athletic director Tom Haslam underscored the importance of the state title for the Land O’ Lakes private school.
“It’s great for everybody across the board, not just sports, but it transcends everything,” Haslam said. “So much dedication and hard work goes into it, and other kids see that and other kids want to be a part of that, whether it’s football, basketball or chorus, or whatever. And, it’s just kind of contagious.”
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats 2017 roster (By jersey number):
1—Jordan Oladokun, freshman
2—Jalen Brown, freshman
3—Tioma Stepanets, junior
4—Isaiah Smith, senior
5—Jamaal Johnson, junior
7—Daniel Gonzalez, senior
8—Jack O’ Malley, senior
9—Caleb Yann, freshman
10—Thomas Kramer, senior
11—Cole Lallanilla, sophomore
12—Denzyl Downing, sophomore
13—Anthony Quintana, sophomore
15—Joel Eason, senior
17—Zachary Moore, senior
18—Elijah Freedman, sophomore
22—Dylan Price, junior
23—Jack Passero, senior
47—Tanner Bianchi, senior
48—Andrew Kilfoyl, freshman
52—Matthew Martin, sophomore
54—Cooper Weber, senior
55—Jordan Witt, sophomore
60—Evan Lutz, senior
98—Jacon Ayoub, freshman
99—Dwight Downing, freshman
8—Jack O’ Malley, senior
20—A.J. Panepinto, eighth grade
81—Terrell Woods, eighth grade
87—James Elverson, eighth grade
Shawn Brown, head coach/defensive coordinator
Kevin Barrett, assistant coach/offensive & defensive line
Ben Donatelli, assistant coach/ line coach
Kirk Downing, assistant coach/stats
Steve Hagenau, assistant coach/trainer
Landon Smith, assistant coach/offensive coordinator
Jesus Solar, assistant coach/quarterbacks
Henry Oladokun, assistant coach/defensive backs
Troy Williams, assistant coach
Manager(s): A.J. Panepinto, Hunter Price
Ball Boy/Girl: Payton Williams, Katie Erin McCormick
Aug. 25: at Citi Christian Academy (40-22 win)
Sept 7: Eastland Christian (50-35 loss)
Sept. 22: Canterbury (48-16 win)
Sept. 28: Solid Rock Community (80-0 win)
Oct. 2: at Saint Lucie Christian (49-12 win)
Oct. 13: Lakeside Christian (40-21 win)
Oct. 20: at Donahue Catholic (36-0 win)
Oct. 27: Seacoast Christian Academy (68-7 win)
Nov. 3: at Hernando Christian Academy (57-29 win)
Nov. 17: Canterbury (54-6 win)
Dec. 1: Eastland Christian (46-6 win)
Dec. 9: Old Plank Christian Academy (30-9 win)
(5:35) — Academy at the Lakes (AATL) quarterback Jalen Brown completes a 30-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jordan Oladokun; two-point conversion good (8-0, AATL leads)
(2:51) — Brown rushes one yard for a touchdown; two-point conversion good (16-0, AATL leads)
(7:52)— AATL running back Daniel Gonzalez rushes 16 yards for a touchdown; extra point no good (22-0, AATL leads)
(9:22)— Old Plank Christian Academy fullback Quinton Sterling rushed two yards for a touchdown; two-point conversion attempt no good (22-7, AATL leads)
(4:40) — Gonzalez rushed three yards for a touchdown; two-point conversion good (30-7, AATL leads)
(1:10) – Old Plank credited for a safety (30-9, AATL leads)
Final: 30-9, AATL wins