The two best high school football teams in Alachua County the past three seasons have been Hawthorne and Buchholz.
Hawthorne, which has 32 wins in three years, has made three straight state championship game appearances and won its first state title in program history last December.
Buchholz has won 30 games in three years and has played in two straight state semifinals.
The bar has been raised and expectations are high, but what happened on the field in years past has no bearing on what happens this upcoming football season.
“Last year’s senior class, that was their state championship,” said Hawthorne football coach Cornelius Ingram, who enters his ninth season as head coach of the Hornets. “You’ve got to go get your own.”
Ingram said he made those comments this past offseason to his 2023 team as a way to get his team refocused so his kids won’t get complacent, which he said is the most important thing.
After back-to-back state runner-up finishes, Hawthorne (12-0) ran the table in 2022 and ended the season with a 13-2 win against Northview in the Class 1R state championship game in Tallahassee.
It was 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.
“It’s probably one of the best things that I’ve ever experienced,” Ingram said. “I’ve had a lot of success in my life, as a former player playing college football, college basketball, I had an opportunity to play in the NFL as well, but I was able to win a state championship at my former high school with my son (C.J. Ingram) being the quarterback, with my older brother (Greg Bowie) being the offensive coordinator…but that state championship was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had my entire life.”
The groundwork was laid many years ago.
“This is the type of program we wanted to have,” Ingram said. “We felt very confident that we were close, I’m talking maybe six years ago we felt like we were really close, even before the state championship appearances. We had a lot of good players, kids were going off to school, and then once we kicked the door in it was almost like this is how football is supposed to be played, this is how a football town is supposed to look.
“There’s nothing else to do in Hawthorne so when there’s a game, it is packed. It’s almost like all the lights are off in the entire town except for on the field.”
Last year, Buchholz finished 10-3, falling at Venice in the Class 4S state semifinals.
However, the Bobcats will have a new head football coach this year as defensive coordinator Chuck Bell took over for Mark Whittemore, who stepped down in December.
The Bobcats lost several key players on offense last year, including Mr. Football Creed Whittemore.
“You never replace the Mr. Football for the state of Florida,” Bell said.
Bell said his main focus for the team this offseason is to get stronger.
“We’ve made maybe a rededication to the weight room at Buchholz,” Bell said. “Over the last few years we’ve relied heavily on being better at the skill positions than any other school that we go against, and I think we have proven that we probably had the better skill players, at least in North Florida, than every other school that we’ve faced over the last two years.”
The speed will be there too, but he feels the 2023 team is the strongest team that Buchholz has had in the past three or four years.
“In my mind, I wanted to get back to maybe some of the roots at Buchholz, the blue-collar mentality, the idea that we’re not going to be pushed around by anybody,” he said. “So really that’s been my focus for the team this year.”
Although he moves into a new role, Bell said he prides himself as a defensive guy.
“Probably where we’ve had the most success is on the defensive line,” he said. “We do a great job of creating havoc for some offenses. We are pretty unique in what we do up front defensively.”
Gavin Hill signed with the University of Florida last year, Kendall Jackson (6’4, 255) recently committed to the Gators, and returnee Thomas Weinhardt (6’2, 225) are some examples of the talent on the defensive line the last couple of years.
If there’s one thing that both programs have in common it’s their tough schedule that helps get them ready for a postseason run.
Hawthorne, which will open the regular season at home on Aug. 25 against Class 3S Middleburg, will host Class 2S South Sumter (Bushnell) (12-1) and Class 1R state semifinalist Union County (8-3), which will be a rematch of last year’s classic in Lake Butler.
The Hornets will also travel to 2S regional quarterfinalist North Marion (Citra) (7-4).
Buchholz, which will open the regular season on Aug. 25 at Class 3S state semifinalist Columbia (Lake City), travels to 4S regional finalist Riverview (Sarasota), and hosts 3S regional semifinalist Vanguard (Ocala) (8-4) and 4S regional finalist Bartram Trail (St. Johns).
The end of the regular season is at 1S state runner-up Trinity Catholic (Ocala).