Ridaught: Buchholz, Hawthorne back in state semis

Hawthorne Jailen Ruth and Buchholz Creed Whittemore
Hawthorne's Jailen Ruth and Buchholz's Creed Whittemore were named the Class 1R and Class 4S Players of the Year, respectively. (Photos by Megan Winslow)
Photos by Megan Winslow

In July, I wrote that the Hawthorne and Buchholz football teams had a legitimate chance to bring home a trophy this season.

Both teams were coming off long postseason runs in 2021 and there was talent on both sides of the ball for the Hornets and the Bobcats.

They are seeking Alachua County’s first Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) football state championship since Santa Fe (Alachua) defeated Lake Wales, 25-6, to win the Class 4A state title in 1994.

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It was ironic that both got back to the state semifinals by posting identical scores.

This past Friday night, Hawthorne (10-0) advanced to its third straight state semifinal with a 21-20 win against Pahokee in a Class 1R-Region 4 Final.

Once again the Hornets’ defense was opportunistic with a big goal-line stand in the first quarter that resulted in an interception, and another interception by Jailen Ruth in the second quarter that he returned for a touchdown.

Hawthorne's Tyelor Waters goes for a tackle against Pahokee on Friday.
Photo by Seth Johnson Hawthorne’s Tyelor Waters goes for a tackle against Pahokee on Friday.

“I thought overall the defense flew around and played at a high level,” said Hawthorne defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins. “Pahokee is a great football team loaded with Division-I talent, so slowing down their playmakers and limiting them making plays in space was something we harped on all week. While we gave up some yards and points later in the game, when it came time to make a stop to seal the game our team was ready and we executed.”

Ruth, who recently decommitted from Washington State, has come up big down the stretch with game-changing plays against North Marion (Citra) and Wildwood too.

Meanwhile, Buchholz took advantage of two fumble recoveries – one by Thomas Weinhardt and one by Colin Nechodom – and turned them into 14 points in a 21-20 win at Class 4S number one overall seed Bartram Trail (St. Johns).

It was the first loss of the season for Bartram Trail (12-1), which handed Buchholz its first loss of the season, 21-6, on Oct. 21.

“I was really proud of the effort our defense played with against Bartram in both of our matchups,” said Buchholz defensive coordinator Chuck Bell. “In both games, we were able to hold them well below their average offensive scoring output (35 points) and also generated two takeaways in each contest. Overall, I’m just glad that our defensive unit was able to contribute to one of the biggest playoff wins in our school’s history.”

The Bobcats (10-2), the No. 3 seed, will travel to No. 2 seed Venice this Friday at 7:30 p.m. for a Class 4S state semifinal. The game will be broadcast on 106.9 FM “I am Country” beginning at 7 p.m.

Venice (8-3) won the 4S-Region 4 title with a 31-15 win against Riverview (Sarasota), whom Buchholz defeated at home on Sept. 2.

“Venice is extremely solid in all phases,” Bell said. “Their offense boasts the best offensive line that our program has competed against since St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale) in last year’s Final Four. Additionally, they have a crafty quarterback and skill players who can go the distance at any time. Keys to victory will be matching their physicality on the line of scrimmage and winning the battle of field position.”

Win or lose, it’s been another great year for the top two football programs in Alachua County.

Buchholz's Jaren Hamilton with a catch against Crestview on Friday.
Photo by Taryn Ashby Buchholz’s Jaren Hamilton with a catch against Crestview in the regional semifinals on Nov. 18.

“To me, the back-to-back Final Four appearances really highlights how strong our entire Buchholz football program is right now,” Bell said. “Even after losing eight starters on defense, and the all-time leading receiver in Alachua County on offense to graduation, to be able to maintain the supremacy that our program has shown, especially in North Florida, makes me so proud to be a Bobcat.”

Bell said Buchholz is “not satisfied with just making it to the Final Four this year.”

“Our kids are extremely focused on taking the next step and bringing the first FHSAA state championship back to Alachua County for the first time since 1994,” he said.

We’ll see if the third time is the charm for Hawthorne after Class 1A state championship game losses to Baker in 2020 and Madison County in 2021.

The No. 1 seed Hornets will host No. 4 seed Blountstown in Friday’s Class 1R state semifinals.

“Blountstown is a program that is not new to success or being deep into the postseason,” Adkins said. “They are usually in this round year in and year out and present a lot of challenges for us.”

“They have a four star safety/WR (Jordan Pride) who has been dominating all year and averaging almost 100 yards per game at receiver and they have two running backs that have combined for close to 2,000 yards on the ground. They are definitely not a one-dimensional team and we have to be willing to cover the entire field and once again limit the big plays and try to make them have to put drives together.”

Adkins said there will be another key to secure a third straight trip to Tallahassee.

“Rallying to the football will be critical as well, as they run a double wing offense and will try to give you some smoke and mirrors to confuse you on defense,” he said.

Hawthorne, which is seeking its first football state title in school history, is a combined 30-4 during its current 3-year run.

“I think it shows that we are not one hit wonders and Coach (Cornelius) Ingram and the rest of us have been able to not only build a successful football team, we have created a football program that expects to compete for championships and play deep into the playoffs each year,” said Adkins, who is also the school’s athletics director. “Being able to reach this round three straight years also is a testament to our players buying in on a yearly basis and not getting caught up into what was done in years past.”

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