Ridaught: Union County seeks first title game in 19 years

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).
Photos by C.J. Gish

Coming into the season, the Union County football team had high hopes after a 12-1 season.

The Tigers, who are 8-2 this year, have met those expectations with a state semifinal appearance.

Now, they are hoping to exceed them.

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In 2021, Union County came up just short of a state semifinal appearance, falling by just two points at Chiefland in last year’s 1A-Region 3 Final.

Following a 41-6 win at home against Lafayette (Mayo) in last week’s 1R-Region 3 Final, the purple and gold are back in the state semifinals and seeking their first state championship game appearance since 2003.

“It’s a great feeling to win our Region and be in this position,” said Union County football coach Andrew Thomas, who led Trenton to state titles in 2013 and 2015. “It’s special to still be playing this time of year and we’re just trying to take advantage of the opportunity.”

The Tigers have been very good offensively.

Union County has scored 21 or more points in every game except the season-opener, a 33-14 loss at University Christian (Jacksonville), which is playing in tonight’s Class 1M state semifinals.

Quarterback A.J. Cortese has thrown for 1,277 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. The dual threat QB has rushed for 638 yards on just 67 carries, an average of 9.5 yards per carry.

Union County's Rayvon Durant led the Tigers with 878 yards rushing.
Photo by C.J. Gish Union County’s Rayvon Durant leads the Tigers with 1,483 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns.

First team All Area running back Rayvon Durant, who led the area in rushing last year with 1,344 yards despite missing three games, has 1,483 yards on the ground in 2022. Durant leads the Tigers with 16 touchdowns.

Durant led the Tigers with 155 yards on the ground last week in the win against the Hornets while Cortese finished with 89 yards on just seven carries. 

As a team, Union County had 389 yards rushing and they’re averaging 271.1 yards per game on the ground.

Meanwhile, the defense, which has 30 sacks and 100 tackles for a loss, is allowing 15.2 points per game.

“We base our program through defense and physicality,” Thomas said. “We’ve been playing solid most of the year on defense, especially vs the run.”

In two playoff games, the Tigers have allowed just 22 points.

“Lately we’ve done a lot better in the backend of now getting beat over the top which had been an issue we’ve had,” Thomas said. “Our defense has been playing with an extra edge in these playoffs.”

Marcus Strong leads the way defensively for the Tigers with 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss.

In order to advance to its first state championship game appearance in 19 years, the No. 3 seed Tigers will have to knock off unbeaten and No. 2 seed Northview (12-0) in Bratt.

Senior Kaden Odom, like Cortese, can beat you with his arm or his legs. He has thrown for 1,343 yards and 14 TDs and has rushed for 567 yards on 72 carries (7.9 average) with eight rushing scores.

However, that pales in comparison to running back Jamarkus Jefferson, who has 10 100-plus yard games this season.

The senior has 2,093 yards on the ground (8.8 ypc) and a whopping 41 touchdowns.

“NV is solid,” Thomas said. “They run the ball extremely well, one of the best running backs in the state, but they also make plays in the passing game. Their QB is a very good ball player.”

Bradford's swarming defense kept Eastside in check in a 37-0 regional semifinal win on Friday.
Photo by C.J. Gish Bradford hosts Cocoa in Starke in the Class 2S state semifinals.

The Chiefs, who are averaging 44.3 points per game, defeated Chipley, 42-6, to win the Region 1 title.

“They have been blowing people out all year,” Thomas said. “We’re just hoping to eliminate big plays and do the best we can to get stops and give our offense a chance. They are good.”

Defensively, the Chiefs are giving up an average of 14.25 ppg.

Union County, which lost to Pahokee, 21-6, in the 2003 Class 2B Final, is seeking its first state title since winning three in a row from 1994-96.

If they advance, they would play the winner of tonight’s game between host Hawthorne, which is back in the state semifinals, and Blountstown (9-4).

The Hornets (10-0), who edged Pahokee, 21-20, in last week’s Region 4 Final, rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit to stun Union County, 28-21, on Oct. 14.

Hawthorne, which has been to back-to-back Class 1A state championship games, has never won a football state title.

Union County and Hawthorne are two of five area teams in the Mainstreet Daily News coverage area with a chance to advance to the state championship game.

Columbia (Lake City) will travel to top seed Lake Wales (13-0) in Class 3S. 

Columbia's Tyler Jefferson on a QB keeper
Photo by C.J. Gish Columbia’s Tyler Jefferson and the Tigers are on the road Friday and play Lake Wales in the Class 3S state semifinals.

The visiting Tigers (9-3), the No. 4 seed, have won seven in a row, including a 20-14 win in overtime last Friday against No. 5 seed Choctaw (Fort Walton Beach). They’ve won nine of their last 10 games since an 0-2 start with losses at Buchholz and Union County, who are both in the state semifinals tonight.

Bradford (Starke), the No. 2 seed in Class 2S, will host No. 3 seed Cocoa. 

The host Tornadoes (12-1), whose only loss was 10-7 at Suwannee (Live Oak) in the regular season finale, have a championship defense. Bradford, which defeated Baker County (Glen St. Mary), 28-17, in last week’s Region 2 Final, has posted nine shutouts this year. 

Buchholz is back in the state semifinals for the second straight year.

The Bobcats (10-2), who won at top seed Bartram Trail (St. Johns), 21-20, in last Friday’s Class 4S-Region 1 Final, travel to defending Class 8A state champion Venice (8-3) for a Class 4S state semifinal.

The game will be broadcast on 106.9 FM “I am Country” beginning at 7 p.m.

The Class 1M, 1R, 1S and 2S state championship games are next week (Dec. 8-10) in Tallahassee, while the 2M, 3M, 4M, 3S & 4S championship games will be in Fort Lauderdale the following week (Dec. 15-17).

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