With all the talk of the Hawthorne Hornets and their 1R state football title a year ago, it’s probably easy to forget there was nearly an all-North Central Florida state championship game in Tallahassee last December.
The Union County Tigers just missed on a rematch with Hawthorne for the state title, as they dropped a 21-11 decision at Northview (Bratt) in the 1R state semifinals.
The Tigers finished 8-3 in 2022 and Union County coach Andrew Thomas is proud to list the accomplishments of last year’s squad.
“It was the first regional title for (Union County) since 2012,” Thomas said. “We had some big wins, beating Madison County and Columbia for the first time. That was the first time Union County had played Columbia in 11-man football.”
The game against Hawthorne was one that got away. Union County led 21-0 at halftime but visiting Hawthorne rallied for a 28-21 win. The loss changed the season for the Tigers.
“We fell short in a couple of games,” Thomas said. “I was really disappointed with how we finished the Hawthorne game. We should have put that one away. That game changed our season by changing the rankings. If we had won we don’t have to drive five hours to the panhandle.”
Thomas added he thought his team was ready for Northview, they just made too many mistakes.
“I really felt good going into that game,” Thomas said. “We just went out there and turned the ball over. We had three or four turnovers in the first half. It was just one of those games where we didn’t play our best.”
Now it’s time to move on to 2023 for Union County. The Tigers must replace their quarterback and running back from a year ago. A.J. Cortese threw for 1,277 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for another 647 yards and 10 scores. Running back Rayvon Durant ran for 1,554 and 17 touchdowns.
“With this year’s team we probably as a whole aren’t as talented,” Thomas said. “We had to replace a lot of guys. But we have a good core of guys that’s been in our program that are coming back, and I think chemistry is better with this team.”
Thomas enters his fourth season as head coach at Union County with 17 seniors, the most he has had so far as coach of the Tigers. Union County also lost its leading receiver from a year ago in Daylyn Diston, but junior Gavin Jenkins hopes to pick up the slack as the leading returning receiver.
“This year is a heavy senior class with a majority of them playing major roles,” Thomas said. “Some of the seniors are first-year starters but they’ve been in the program for two or three years. It’s going to be their first time on Friday nights so we will see how they respond to that.”
There will be more athletes playing both sides for Union County this fall. One of those to watch is senior running back/outside linebacker Thomas Williams.
“We don’t have a lot of superstars,” Thomas said. “Thomas Williams will be a kid that will play more of a role on both sides of the ball. He will carry more of a role as a running back. He’s a tough back to bring down, but he’s also our leading tackler coming back on defense.”
Williams was third on the team in tackles with 51 a year ago and added 13.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Seniors Dylan Lane and Tucker Baynard return to anchor the Tigers’ offensive line.
Replacing Cortese as the Union County signal-caller is junior Trenton Klein.
“He’s just a tough kid who, right now, is our top guy going into the fall,” Thomas said. “He may rotate some at quarterback because he’s also our starting middle linebacker. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Another returning player on both sides of the ball is senior Brycen Boney, who will line up at wingback and as a safety on defense.
The defensive line is led by senior Jacob Jenkins.
The schedule is different but will challenge the Tigers once again. Another matchup at Hawthorne looms in week seven along with some early season challenges.
“We had a couple of schools drop us that were supposed to play, so our schedule is not as strong as last year,” Thomas said. “We have to go to Columbia (week 2) and Walton (week 3) back-to-back. That’s a four-hour trip to Walton, so that will affect us having to go there right after Columbia.”