Ridaught: Small school football not so small

Hawthorne's C.J. Ingram and Union County's A.J. Cortese
Hawthorne quarterback C.J. Ingram (left) and Union County quarterback A.J. Cortese have helped lead their teams to tonight's Class 1R state semifinals. If the Hornets and Tigers win, they will play each other for the state title next Saturday night in Tallahassee (photos by C.J. Gish).

This year, the smallest classification in high school football has some of the biggest contenders for a state title in the area. 

Heading into Friday night’s games, four teams in Mainstreet’s coverage area are ranked top 10 in the state by MaxPreps in Class 1R. 

Two of them —Hawthorne and Union County —go head-to-head tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Lake Butler. The game will be broadcast on 106.9 FM “I am Country” beginning at 7 p.m. 

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Hawthorne (5-0), which is ranked fifth in 1R by MaxPreps, has been to back-to-back Class 1A state championship games, falling to Madison County by one point in last year’s title game. The Cowboys, who have four losses but against a tough schedule, are ranked third in the state behind No. 2 Union County

“Class 1R is pretty loaded this year it seems,” said Union County coach Andrew Thomas. “You could probably make a case for six to eight teams that probably have the capability to win it all. So, it will be interesting come playoff time.” 

Chiefland is ranked fourth in 1R by MaxPreps but on Wednesday when the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) released its rankings, the Indians (5-0) were No. 1 in 1R and No. 20 overall in Florida. 

“I think 1R, especially our side of the bracket, is absolutely loaded,” said first-year Chiefland coach James Corbin, whose team beat another 1R contender, Wildwood, 28-20, in overtime last Friday. “Union County is a great, physical football team. Hawthorne made it to state last year and return quite a few of their big players and will be looking to make a push. Pahokee has shown that they are a powerhouse down south and will be a serious problem for some teams come playoffs.” 

Wildwood is ranked seventh following the loss to the Indians. Chiefland never led in regulation but came out on top to stay unbeaten. 

“Wildwood is a fantastic team and we were in a dog fight with them on Friday,” Corbin said. “They’ll make a deep playoff run for sure. Williston has added some key players to their roster and they are not the team they were last year. They’re a great team and very well coached.” 

Chiefland’s homecoming game tonight against Zarephath Academy (Jacksonville) was canceled by their opponent. That makes two games the Indians have lost as their game against Trenton was canceled due to weather and won’t be made up. 

“I’m more worried about the psychological toll it’s going to take on our kids than anything,” Corbin said. “Trenton is big rivalry game for us, and it’s a shame we weren’t able to get something together to make that happen. Obviously, losing a homecoming game is even more discouraging to our kids. We just pray someone will come through for us to allow us the opportunity.” 

Chiefland was hoping to schedule another opponent but if not, it looks like they will turn their attention to next week’s home game against Florida High (Tallahassee), which is 6-0 and ranked second in Class 2S by MaxPreps. 

“Our kids have faced adversity in the past, though, so I know we have the mental toughness to stay on track,” Corbin said. “Next week we play Florida High, which will certainly be the most difficult game on the schedule, so this may be a blessing in disguise.” 

Williston, which hosts Trenton (0-5) tonight, has been the surprise of the area. 

The Red Devils (6-0), who rushed for 292 yards last week in a 63-6 win against Class 2S Lake Weir (Ocala), have scored 42 or more points in all six games this season. They’ve also posted three shutouts and are only allowing 8.8 points per game. 

“I think we have gotten better each week,” said first-year Williston coach Robby Pruitt. “We still have a long way to go. We need to improve especially on special teams.” 

Pruitt, who led Union County to three straight state championships in the 90s, echoed the comments of his peers.

“I think 1R is a very competitive class with four or five really strong clubs,” he said. “Pahokee, Hawthorne, Chiefland and Madison County are the top 4 in my opinion.” 

That could change after tonight. 

Union County’s only loss was at University Christian (Jacksonville), which is 7-0 and ranked third in Class 1M by MaxPreps. 

The Tigers (4-1) have outscored P.K. Yonge, Newberry, and Dixie County (Cross City) by a score of 142-13. 

“We’ve gotten better week to week and that’s the goal, to be our best come November,” Thomas said. 

Union County also has a win (31-27) against Columbia (Lake City), which is ranked eighth in Class 3S by MaxPreps. 

Last week in a 42-6 win against Dixie County, Tigers’ quarterback A.J. Cortese was 19-of-26 passing for 271 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on six carries. 

Senior running back Rayvon Durant is averaging 158 yards per game on the ground with 10 touchdowns. In five games, Durant leads Union County with 790 yards on 94 carries (8.4 yards per carry). 

“Union County is a very well-balanced team that can beat you either throwing or running the football,” said Hawthorne defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins. “Durant is a tough running back who always seems to get positive yards on each carry, while AJ is a dual threat at the QB position. To be successful we have to limit their big plays in the run game. If we can make them one dimensional then it will put us in a good position.” 

The Hornets have Division-I players all over the field. However, they may be without their best defensive player in Washington State commit Jailen Ruth.

“Jailen is recovering from an injury suffered a few games ago so as of right now his status is unclear if he is going to suit up and play,” Adkins said. “Jailen is a competitor and wants to be on the field. However, as a staff, we are concerned about his future and not risking anything major by playing him early if he is not ready to go.” 

Hawthorne’s offensive backfield is led by running back Brian James, who rushed for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior. Sophomore C.J. Ingram, the son of head coach Cornelius Ingram, gives them another playmaker on offense.

If you’re looking for common opponents, the Hornets defeated P.K. Yonge, 46-6, at home on Sept. 23, while Union County defeated the Blue Wave in Gainesville, 55-7, on Sept. 16.

But that was Hawthorne’s only game against 1R competition. The Hornets have defeated Class 3S Middleburg, 3M Terry Parker (Jacksonville), and 1M Orlando Christian Prep on the road, and they rallied past 2M Gibbs (St. Pete) at home on Oct. 4.

“Hawthorne just knows how to win,” Thomas said. “They play very good defense. When you are really good on defense you always have a chance and they have plenty of playmakers on offense.”

Adkins said the key to a Hawthorne victory tonight is that his defense will “have to limit their ground game.”

“They average close to 300 yards per game and seven yards per rush,” he said. “We have to line up right and read our keys. If we put ourselves in the right position and execute our given assignments, I like our chances over anyone. When we get them in 3rd down situations we have to get them off the field.”

Tonight’s game in Lake Butler features two very physical and talented football teams, regardless of classification.

“I have always said there is good local talent in the area, and this year it is nice for outsiders to see this as well,” Adkins said. “Regardless of classifications, I believe the top programs in 1R can compete with almost anyone throughout the state, and the success these teams are having only further strengthens my point. It should make for a fun and interesting postseason.”

Next week, Hawthorne will host North Marion (Citra), which just upset Vanguard (Ocala) at Booster Stadium, and on Nov. 4, Union County hosts Class 2S No. 11 Walton (DeFuniak Springs), Newberry travels to unbeaten South Sumter (Bushnell), and Chiefland hosts Williston.

Big games are ahead in Class 1R. As Thomas said, it should make for an interesting postseason.

Last year, Union County was undefeated and lost by just two points at Chiefland in the regional finals.

“We have a really talented football team,” Corbin said. “Our brand of football is to play smash mouth physical football, but we have the weapons to spread the ball out as well, when the matchups dictate that. I think we’ve shown we can play with anyone in 1R, but we are aware of how talented the rest of the state, particularly our region, is.”

Also, Buchholz will host Oakleaf (Orange Park) in a Class 4S-District 3 game. The game will be broadcast online at MainStreetDailyNews.com beginning at 7:20 p.m. Kickoff is at 7:35 p.m.

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