This Monday marks the official start of the high school football season as fall practice begins for teams around the state.
Locally, there are a pair of football teams who have a legitimate chance to bring home a trophy this season — Buchholz (Gainesville) and Hawthorne.
They are clearly the most talented teams in the area, but you’ve still got to put in the work.
Both schools had great runs in 2021 as the Bobcats played in the Class 7A state semifinals and the Hornets were Class 1A state runners-up.
But with success comes expectations.
“Unbelievable,” Hawthorne coach Cornelius Ingram said of last year’s run. “Going into last offseason there was a lot of pressure on these kids. We can only say so much during the day, on the practice field, but these kids still have to go to the grocery store, go to the barber shop, the mall. I can’t imagine what was said to them.”
That “Win state or bust” pressure adds to the difficulty of just making it to a title game. It’s so hard just to get there.
“I take my hat off to these kids, they work hard,” Ingram said. “Every single day on and off the field. It’s a new season and I think these guys are energized to make another state playoff run. We’re excited. We’ve been having a great offseason.”
Ingram feels like his team has “eliminated” the added pressure.
“We’ve done a good job as a coaching staff enjoying one day at a time,” he said. “The process, getting bigger, getting faster, getting stronger, we’ve really been enjoying it.”
Ingram, who is also the head coach of the Hawthorne girls basketball team, said he would normally have workouts with his girls during the offseason while the guys were in the weight room.
That changed this summer and they have embraced the hard work and made it fun.
“I’ve been going into the weight room every single day with the guys,” he said. “I’ve been lifting with them, I’m the deejay (DJ), so it’s been fun because when you’re doing hard things you’ve got to find ways to get the kids to enjoy it. When they know that I’m coming in the weight room and I’m bringing my juice, bringing my phone with my music, it’s a priceless moment for our program and these kids.”
Meanwhile, Buchholz is coming off its best season in over 30 years.
The Bobcats, who finished 12-2 last year, defeated Nease (Ponte Vedra) in the region final to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since 1995.
“Obviously special,” said Buchholz head coach Mark Whittemore. “The senior class was incredible. We had a couple of first-year players to the program, came over from Gainesville High, phenomenal. Jahari Clemons in the middle, Nay’ron Jenkins on the outside, Junior back there at safety, unbelievable players, and all of them are going to play on Saturdays.”
Now the Bobcats will reload, and like Hawthorne, they are loaded.
“It didn’t take us long to reboot in the offseason,” Whittemore said. “I told the kids we have to remain stable. We can’t get out of our lane. With the addition of Jaren Hamilton (wide receiver from P.K. Yonge), we need to just stay steady, but I’m excited about the possibilities.”
Hamilton will help fill the void due to the graduation of UCF signee Quan Lee, the all-time leading wide receiver in Alachua County history.
“It’s not rocket science, everybody knows that Quan Lee was a huge part of our success, but we’ve got five or six receivers right now that are legit pieces of that receiving puzzle as we look to try and replicate last year’s offensive production,” Whittemore said. “It might look a little different, but we hope the outcome is the same.”
Excluding the state semifinal game against nationally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale), Buchholz dominated the competition, outscoring 13 opponents, 458-101.
The Hornets, who finished 10-1 last year, outscored their 11 opponents, 373-101.
Both teams have the athletes to win it all.
For Buchholz, there’s University of Florida commits Creed Whittemore and Gavin Hill, Kendall Jackson (Florida offer), and Hamilton (Alabama offer), just to name a few.
Hawthorne has CJ Ingram at quarterback, plus Washington State commit Jailen Ruth, Georgia State University commit Stanley Cooks, and Rutgers commit Mozell Williams, among several others.
“We’re right there,” Ingram said. “If we can just continue to believe and work, we’ll get what we deserve.”
Buchholz is right there too.
“Obviously the ball has to bounce our way, as in any season, but we need to remain, what I’m preaching is stability,” Whittemore said. “We need to be stable, have a stable mindset, emotionally, as a team, we don’t need to get out ahead of ourselves, we need to play our brand of football, that’s what needs to happen if we are to be successful.”
It should be another special season for the top two teams in Alachua County.