Union County sets sights high

Union County football AJ Cortese (9) and Rayvon Durant (4)
Union County quarterback AJ Cortese (9) accounted for nearly 1,000 yards on offense despite being missing four games due to injury and running back Rayvon Durant (4) amased 1,457 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2021. (Photos by C.J. Gish)

The only active head football coaches in the area with more than one state championship ring have both coached in Lake Butler.

Current Williston coach Robby Pruitt led Union County to three straight state titles from 1994-1996, while Andrew Thomas led Trenton to a state title in 2013 and 2015.

Union County football coach Andrew Thomas
Photo by Megan Winslow Andrew Thomas

Thomas, who enters his third season as head coach of the Union County Tigers, won his 100th career game last year. He has an overall coaching record 106-27.

Thomas said the key to his success in the offseason hasn’t been participating in 7-on-7 drills or attending camps.

“The biggest focus has always been the weight room for me in the summer,” he said. “I’m just trying to develop our mentality and our attitude in the weight room. To me, it’s kind of a foundation of everything we’re trying to do discipline-wise, effort-wise, and trying to get bigger, stronger, faster.”

That hard work paid off last year as he led Union County (Lake Butler) to a 12-0 record before losing by two points to Chiefland in the Class 1A-Region 3 Final.

It was the first time since 2012 that the Tigers had gone undefeated since the 11-0 team lost to Newberry, 18-13, in the Class 1A state playoffs under then head coach Ronny Pruitt, who is Robby’s brother.

“Going into it we didn’t expect to be at a point where we would be 12-0 going into the third round of the playoffs,” Thomas said. “A lot of it had to do with the work we did in the offseason last year. We looked physically like a different team than we did in 2020.”

Due to COVID-19 in 2020, the Tigers didn’t get to do a lot in the weight room, but they still finished 8-4 and made the postseason in Thomas’ first season before losing to Madison County in the third round of the Class 1A playoffs.

It was “kind of” his first full offseason. Things changed in 2021.

“Our kids bought into what we were doing,” he said. “We were a lot more bigger, physical team than we were the year before and got through some games early. We could have lost a couple of games early in the season, easy, and pulled some games out and then just kind of built on that and got confidence.”

Union County football AJ Cortese
Photo by Megan Winslow AJ Cortese

The Tigers just missed out on an opportunity to play the Cowboys in a rematch in the state semifinals last year.

“Disappointed how it finished,” he said. “I feel like we played our best, but we’re just using that as a learning experience. You can’t be complacent at any point in the playoffs and I think we did a little bit in that game (vs. Chiefland) and it kind of bit us, so we’re just trying to learn from that.”

With nine starters returning on offense and six players back on defense, expect the Tigers to be back in the mix for another lengthy postseason run.

“We’ve got an experienced team coming back and we’re just trying to get closer and develop a little more leadership as a whole,” Thomas said.

The Tigers will have a veteran offense in 2022. They lost one offensive lineman and a fullback, but the backfield is deep.

It all starts at quarterback with senior AJ Cortese. Despite playing in only eight games due to injury, the dual-threat QB still had almost 1,000 yards (945) rushing and throwing the football, including 10 scores.

“At our level, you don’t have any kids that are 6-4 playing quarterback that can run so he allows us to do a lot of stuff on offense,” Thomas said. “We can do a lot of option stuff with him. He’s a threat to run the football but he’s got a great arm.”

Cortese is currently being recruited by a lot of smaller Division-I schools.

“He’s got the ability to take us as far as we want to go,” Thomas said. “He had a setback last year and missed eight weeks and it slowed him down. We got him back for the playoffs but he was rusty and that could have been part of the struggles we had in that third round. He provides a weapon for us at that position that I haven’t really ever had.”

But he’s just one weapon on offense, as rising senior Rayvon Durant returns after rushing for 1,457 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior.

Union County football Daylyn Diston (14) run
Photo by C.J. Gish Daylyn Diston averaged 10.5 yards per carry and had five touchdowns on offense and picked off six passes on defense for the Tigers in 2021.

“He’s a special kid,” Thomas said. “He works so hard. His leadership off the field is as impressive as what he does on the field. He works harder than anybody that we’ve got.”

Thomas said the Mainstreet Daily News All Area first team selection deserved what he got last year.

“He missed the first four weeks but still led the area in rushing and we didn’t get him until we played Williston (Week 4),” Thomas said. “He’s a physical kid. He’s just a tough runner so having the O-line we’ve got in front is going to set up well for what we can do running-wise.”

Daylyn Diston, who is also the leader at safety on defense and made first team All Area after picking off six passes, will join the duo in the backfield.

Diston averaged 10.5 yards per carry and scored five rushing touchdowns as a junior.

“A lot of experience on the offensive side of the ball,” Thomas said. “Defensively is where we are lacking a little bit of experience and more up front. We’re younger and a little less experienced, lost a couple of guys. Our skill players on the defensive side are pretty good, especially for a 1A school.”

Thomas also feels the team will be better “back end wise” than they were a year ago.

“Kids are more developed than they were a year ago,” he said. “Athletically as a whole, I think we’re better than we were a year ago.”

The Tigers have a few new starters on the defensive line, but they are hoping to get Marcus Strong (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) back from injury early in the season. At some point he’s going to get cleared.

Union County football Rayvon Durant
Photo by Megan Winslow Rayvon Durant

“Marcus Strong is a difference maker that you haven’t even heard of because he’s been out for a year,” Thomas said. “He didn’t play any last year with a torn ACL. He’s just a difference maker. He can play inside technique and play on the edge so the sooner we get him back it’s going to make us so much better up front.”

Union County will certainly be battled tested this year as Columbia (Lake City), whom they have never played, 1A state runner-up Hawthorne, and a good Wildwood team are on the schedule, among others.

“We’ve got a tough schedule this year,” Thomas said. “We don’t have that many weeks where it’s going to be an easy week.”

Thomas said they’re going to get tested throughout the year.

“We’ve got an experienced team,” Thomas said. “Do I see us being 10-0 in November going into the playoffs? Probably realistically no, but our goal is to try and win every week and test ourselves and see where we can go but it’s going to be tough from the get-go. I’m looking forward to it, especially the early part of the season.”

There is one thing that Thomas said will determine whether or not this is a special season in Lake Butler – leadership.

“I think as a whole, injuries always play a big factor in 1A football, but aside from that is how much our senior leadership grows,” he said. That’s been a big focus for us in the offseason is maturing and just having better leadership, not coming from the coaches but coming from the players and them being able to just take leadership to another level.

The Tigers will travel to University Christian for the season opener on Friday, Aug. 26. Last year, UCS, a perennial power out of Jacksonville, made the Class 2A state playoffs.

Then they host Columbia on Friday, Sept. 2.

The talent is there but it all starts between the ears.

“I feel like that’s kind of a barrier that if we can break through, I think the football side will take care of itself because there’s going to be tough times in games so where is our leadership going to be when it gets tough,” Thomas said. “I think the mental side and the leadership side of things are going to be what sets us apart.”

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