Cocoa High head football coach John Wilkinson has a notoriously rough week each year preparing for rival Merritt Island, but he won a bet with his assistant coaches this year by not raising his voice all week.
Instead, the Tigers raised their game.
They did so defensively, in particular. Cocoa’s defense controlled the night, while bruising back Antwan Lee ground out a 102-yard rushing night in a 17-0 Tigers win.
“I’m so excited for them,” Wilkinson said of his defensive players. “They’ve just come together since that debacle a couple of weeks ago.”
That debacle was a 49-3 loss to Fort Lauderdale University and dropped the Tigers to 0-2, but they’ve rebounded with two consecutive wins to even their season.
As he did last week against Warner Christian, a 28-0 road win for Cocoa, Lee stepped up with a big night. He gained 102 yards on 19 rushes, but his best moments came during a late first-half drive when he had runs of 11, 8, 3 and 5 yards to get a stagnant offense moving.
Still, he didn’t take any credit for himself.
“As an offense, we had to do it together. It’s not one man,” he said. “Our offensive coordinator made us cut (runs) back inside tonight. Every team that plays us shoots to the outside. They know we’re a sideline-to-sideline team and they’ve got to stop the sweeps.”
Lee was the player for that job, even against a Mustangs defense that had gotten its team off to a 4-0 start. Merritt Island held senior Tarean Folston to 60 yards on 23 carries.
Meanwhile, the plan for the Cocoa defense was to keep an eye on Merritt Island quarterback Nick Smith.
“We didn’t give up any big plays,” said junior Tigers defender Jamel Jackson. “We did our assignments. We didn’t give up the quarterback pitch. That’s the big key when we play Merritt Island.”
Merritt Island gained 107 yards, including 73 on the ground. Josh Studstill looked ready to play the Lee role for the Mustangs after halftime. He carried for 6, 9, 6 and 2 yards before a fumbled handoff at midfield ended what looked like a promising drive with Cocoa leading 10-0.
The Tigers capped their first scoring drive with a 1-yard dive by Lorrenzo Pratt at 3:45 of the second quarter. Merritt Island fumbled the kick return, and Cocoa took over at the 34. Matt Adams kicked a 42-yard field goal to give the Tigers 10 first-half points.
When a snap sailed over the head of Smith on a fourth-down play for the Mustangs late in the third, he covered it at the 6. Folston eventually scored from the 10.
Demarcus Sweeting ended the last drive to midfield for the Mustangs, intercepting a tipped pass.
Both teams play district games next week, Cocoa at Cocoa Beach in Class 4A, District 5. Merritt Island stays home against Rockledge in Class 5A, District 13.