ORADELL, N.J. — Hold off on demoting the Cocoa High football team back to local power. The Tigers stepped back onto the national stage Saturday with a shocker of a win, upsetting USA Today No. 18 Bergen Catholic, 24-14, the first public school to win on the Crusaders’ field since 2004 and the first from Florida.
Expectations may not have been high for this trip to the outskirts of New York City, but the Cocoa High team that shut down the Crusaders (4-2), who had averaged 55 points and 320 passing yards, showed it can still deliver, whatever the adversity.
“I’m very emotional, because we’ve come one-thousand miles with 23 kids to play one of the top programs in the country,” head coach John Wilkinson said. “We struggled out of the gate a little bit this year.”
That and an 0-3 start to the 2011 season that ended with a state semifinal loss had created doubt in the minds of Cocoa and Florida high school football followers. A 49-3 loss to Ft. Lauderdale University a month ago aggravated that.
Saturday’s win – particularly the defense that forced four turnovers and twice stopped the high-powered Bergen Catholic team on fourth down – may have rerouted the Tigers program.
“I think, from top to bottom, we played really well,” Wilkinson said. “It looked like we got a little bit of the Dark Side (defense) back. We got embarrassed a few weeks ago by University.”
Three times, the Tigers intercepted Bergen, twice in the shadow of the goal posts. Jamel Dean at his own 8 on the day’s first drive and returned the ball to midfield. Antwan Lee did it moments later in the end zone after the Crusaders had driven to the Cocoa 2. By the time Tarean Folston picked off a third near midfield, less than five minutes remained in the game and the Tigers (4-2) were closing out the victory.
“We watched a lot of film on these guys,” Folston said. “We knew all their routes. Our defensive line was great. We still left a few plays out there, but they did a great job.”
The line chased Crusaders quarterback Jonathan Germano all afternoon. The three interceptions doubled his season total in that category, and he came nowhere near his completion percentage of 72.4.
Meanwhile, the Cocoa offense played what Folston said was its best game of the season, and did it with big plays. Folston was a focus, starting at quarterback and keeping for an 84-yard touchdown run down the left sideline at 8:24 of the second quarter. With regular starter Jaelon Knowles back under center in the second half, Folston struck again, taking a handoff and then pulling up for a 40-yard halfback pass to Rakeem Murray, who dragged a defender the final four yards to the end zone for the score. Folston also broke up a pass attempt on a fourth-down try by Bergen Catholic in the first half, and his high punts kept the Crusaders from going anywhere on their returns.
“He does it all,” Wilkinson said. “He never comes off the field except for kickoffs. He’s our guy, and some college is going to be very lucky to get him.”
Any scouts there to watch Folston had to take note of the Tigers pass rushers, who looked like the speedy group that hassled opposing quarterbacks on state championship runs in 2008, ’09 and ’10.
“It was speed,” said Deondre Barnett, a senior defensive lineman. “We didn’t get a lot of sacks because they were holding and they had good technique, but we had the speed.”
So did Lorrenzo Pratt. He ran into the middle of a tough Bergen defense most of the afternoon, but running behind Freddie Booth-Lloyd and Vernon Wright, he broke into the end zone 54 seconds into the third period to make it 14-0 with a 64-yard touchdown run.
“They were flowing to the motion side, so the coaches thought if they kept going with the flow, we could go between the tackles and break it long,” Pratt said.
They were right, and the Tigers turned a one-score lead that was tentative into a two-score game that brought some swagger back to Cocoa.
The Tigers, as a result, brought a win back to Cocoa. Who knows where that could take them.