We’re running out of football to cover. As the high school football playoff competition intensifies, I found myself thinking of the handful of goose-bump-inducing moments I have experienced over the 18 years I have been here. Most of the moments occurred in the month of November, as very few teams from Southwest Florida have practiced and played in the month of December. As Naples prepares to visit South Fort Myers, as East Lee County prepares to visit Immokalee and as Naples First Baptist prepares to play host to Tampa Carrollwood in the regional semifinals (the second round of the state playoffs), read on for a walk down memory lane.
Writer’s note: This marks the 13th of what may end up being a 16-week experiment in the 2012 high school football season: A Monday offering of news, notes, analysis and observations regarding high school football in Southwest Florida.
I’m also looking for reader/fan/parent feedback. You can connect with me by email (email@example.com), Facebook (David Dorsey) or https://twitter.com/DavidADorsey (@DavidADorsey).
Let’s get it on…
I got here in August of 1994 on a three-month internship that never ended. That fall of 1994, LaBelle had one of the best TEAMS I ever covered. I capitalize that word TEAM because although the Cowboys had some Division I talent in wide receiver Brett Basquin (Georgia Tech) and kicker Bill Gramatica (Florida State and USF), they really thrived because of their unity and chemistry.
Trailing 14-12 against No. 1 Pahokee, Bill Gramatica, who would go on to play for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL, had three seconds left on the clock when attempting a 47-yard field goal. He made it. Here’s what I wrote about that 18 years ago:
“Most of the Pahokee players fell to their knees. Others just looked at the ground as LaBelle’s fans swarmed the field and teammates hoisted Gramatica onto their shoulders.”
LaBelle won that game 15-14. The following season, LaBelle advanced to the Class 3A state title game, where it lost 28-3 to Lake Butler Union County in Daytona Beach.
Friday, Nov. 15, 2002
Fort Myers had a season that tugged on the emotions. Sam Sirianni Sr., who coached the Green Wave for 33 years, had died Oct. 4 on a Friday as the season began. Sam Sirianni Jr., his son and the team’s longtime offensive coordinator, had taken the helm of the program as coach (and has become the current longest-tenured coach in Lee County).
Here’s a cut-down version of the game story I wrote 10 years ago:
“A ponytailed, blond-haired kicker named “Weed” ended the Fort Myers High School football team’s season Friday night by kicking a 51-yard, last-second field goal in the Class 4A state playoffs.
Lakewood Ranch, which fielded a varsity team for just the fourth season, defeated Fort Myers 18-17, ending an emotional season for the Green Wave.
“With one second left on the clock, my heart just dropped,” said Fort Myers senior back Tim Douglas. “It was going through the uprights.
“I just can’t believe it.”
Gary “Weed” Cismesia, a 6-foot-1, 189-pound Lakewood Ranch junior who already had established himself as one of the state’s top kickers, had less than 10 seconds to sprint to the middle of Sam Sirianni Field at Edison Stadium and kick a moist ball on a soggy field.
With the Mustangs trailing 17-15 with no timeouts remaining – Fort Myers kicker Blake Dorchak had made a 40-yard field goal of his own – Lakewood Ranch scrambled to get the kick off in time.
“I didn’t worry about it,” said Cismesia, whose blond ponytail runs well below his shoulders. The Tampa-based officiating crew, however, made Cismesia tuck the ponytail underneath his helmet.
“I just ran out there and kicked it,” Cismesia said. “I didn’t have any time to think about it.”
Fort Myers lost in the first round of the state playoffs that year for the first time since 1997.
Cismesia went on to kick at Florida State.
“Win or lose, I guess it’s fitting that it’s such an emotional ending.” Sirianni Jr. said a decade ago. “Losing this way, it seems so tough. I’m sure that this is just one of those life lessons. I’m not sure what that lesson is now, but years from now we’ll be able to look back and know what it is.”
Dec. 3, 2010
Sammy Watkins, now a sophomore at Clemson University, had a game for the ages. I’ll let my game story from almost two years ago speak for itself:
“If Sammy Watkins wasn’t considered a legend of Lee County football before Friday night, he certainly could be called one now.
Down a touchdown with less than four minutes remaining in the Region 3A-3 championship game at South Fort Myers High School, Watkins, the South senior All-American wide receiver, largely had been shut down by Bradenton Southeast.
Watkins then went on a fourth-quarter tear. First, he caught a 69-yard touchdown pass off a fake punt, directly snapped to senior quarterback Dallas Crawford.
Five plays later, Watkins scored again, on a 60-yard, meandering punt return with 68 seconds remaining that allowed the Wolfpack to come back for a 28-21 victory in front of a crowd that approached 4,000 fans.
“Yes sir,” Watkins said, asked if his goals – beyond winning the first high school football title in Lee County history – include making a name for himself. “I want to break records. I want to set records. However I can do it.”
South Fort Myers went on to lose to Miami Norland in the Class 3A state semifinals.
Watkins caught three passes for 110 yards and the touchdown
“I think they will compare him to Deion,” said James McMiller, who can be excused for his bias in mentioning Fort Myers native Deion Sanders, a 1985 North Fort Myers graduate and eight-time NFL All-Pro. McMiller is Watkins’ stepfather and has raised him since infancy. “I’m ecstatic. What else can I say? All I could do is open up my heart and have you feel how hard it’s beating.”
Nov. 29, 2002
Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas eliminated Fort Myers from the playoffs five times. Estero and Cypress Lake also finished their seasons at one point or another against the Raiders. Well 10 years ago, Charlotte High to the north in Punta Gorda became the first program from Southwest Florida to knock Aquinas out of the playoffs.
Here’s what I wrote, almost 10 years ago:
“PUNTA GORDA – As Friday night turned colder, Justin Midgett’s arm seemed to get warmer.
Midgett, the University of Florida-bound senior quarterback on the Charlotte High School football team, helped make history as the Tarpons defeated Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas 28-21 in front of about 7,000 fans.
Charlotte became the first team from Southwest Florida ever to defeat Aquinas in football.
The Tarpons, who improved to 13-0, will play in the Class 4A state semifinals, to be played at Charlotte on Friday against Tampa Jefferson, which defeated Lakeland Lake Gibson 35-14. (NOTE: Jefferson won that next game and finished as the state runner-up to Melbourne Palm Bay, losing 19-10).
Aquinas has won three state championships and finished as the runner-up five times, including last season, under coach George Smith.
“It’s a big win for us,” Charlotte coach Binky Waldrop said. “Maybe the biggest in school history. We tried to stop their run a little bit. Offensively, we finally started to move the ball and put it in the end zone.”
Midgett, who passed for just 54 yards in the first half, finished by completing 13-of-21 passes for 235 yards and one touchdown with one interception.
Midgett also sealed the victory by scoring the game’s final touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1:26 remaining. He began the game by rubbing the four-foot long Tarpon that rested on his team’s bench.
He did so for good luck.
“We were a little jittery early in the game,” said Midgett, who was sacked three times for negative 20 yards in the first half. “You’re playing St. Thomas, and they’re made out to being an untouchable team. Once we got the first couple of drives behind us, our offensive line started to make their blocks.”
“Everybody just kept their cool,” Charlotte senior receiver Shawn Dume said. “We know that we’re a second half team.”
Dume kept his cool as well. With Aquinas double-covering Midgett’s favorite target – Ryan Voss – Midgett repeatedly found Dume for vital first-down completions.
Dume finished with seven catches for 100 yards, including a 55-yard catch.
“I made a couple of key plays on fourth down,” Dume said. “I made the right plays at the right time.”
After Midgett’s rushing touchdown gave the Tarpons the lead, Aquinas got the ball back with 2:20 remaining and had another opportunity to tie the score.
But with 1:46 remaining, Carr was intercepted by Charlotte’s Tyler Wright.
The Charlotte fans began to celebrate, and after the game, coaches from the Fort Myers team congratulated Waldrop on accomplishing the one hurdle that has prevented the Green Wave from winning a state title.
Fort Myers is 0-7 against the Raiders.
Smith vowed that his team will regroup for next season.
“We’ll be back,” Smith said. “You learn more things after losing then after winning.”
Dec. 11, 1998
Interesting that three of these five memories include game-winning field goals.
Fourteen years ago, Wes Virgilio cemented his name into local lore. His leg helped Estero High School become the only public program in Lee County to reach a state title game. Estero lost that game 28-14 to Kissimmee Osceola.
Will South Fort Myers or East Lee County get one step further? Stay tuned. Here’s what happened that night in Lakeland in 1998:
“LAKELAND – Wes Virgilio used to have nightmares about making game-winning kicks. Now, he just makes dreams come true.
Virgilio made a 28-yard field goal with one second remaining Friday night at Bryant Stadium as Estero upset top-ranked Lakeland 15-14 to advance to the Class 5A state high school football championship game.
“I was praying all the time,” said Virgilio, who made a 29-yarder three weeks ago to lift Estero to its first playoff victory only to say afterwards he had nightmares about such kicks. “I thank everybody who had faith in me.”
Estero will face Kissimmee Osceola, which defeated Daytona Beach Mainland 32-0 in the other semifinal, at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.
“It’s hard to put into words what our kids have done,” said Estero coach Joe Hampton, whose team improved to 13-1 for the best season in school history, not to mention one of the best in Lee, Charlotte, Collier or Hendry county history.
Only eight teams from those counties have even reached a state title game since the state tournament began in 1963. One of them, Clewiston, tied for the Class 2A championship with Monticello Jefferson County in 1982.
Now, it’s Estero’s chance to do what no other Lee County football team has done – win a state championship.
And Friday’s final moments may have Estero fans believing in destiny.
On third-and-14 on the 39-yard line and just 14 seconds remaining, David Hall saw no one open but heaved the ball to the middle of the field, where Andrew Layton and Adrian Hall scrambled to get position in front of two Lakeland defenders.
Hall grabbed the 28-yard reception with four seconds remaining.
David Hall spiked the ball, and gave Virgilio one second for the kick.
“I was praying with everyone else on the sidelines,” said Estero’s Josh Arizmendi, who made a big play of his own in the first half when he hit Lakeland receiver Ronnie Ghent at the goal line, forcing him to drop what could have been a touchdown catch.
Then, Virgilio got himself in position and booted the ball high and straight. When the ball went through for the win, his teammates mobbed him. Virgilio cried. Then, the Estero fans joined the celebration on the field. Lakeland players were stunned and also crying.
“We give Estero a lot of credit,” Lakeland coach Bill Castle said. “They just found a way at the end to make the play. I think they’ll be all right next week. They should match up real good.”
The Wildcats have a state championship chance largely because of two critical defensive plays in the second half made by junior linebacker Adam Gilstad.
But after rushing for just 34 yards in the first half and falling behind 14-0, Estero began to move the ball in the second half.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, the Wildcats went on an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that took five minutes and 17 seconds.
Estero senior quarterback David Hall finished the drive with a 1-yard run. Lakeland’s Mandrell Butler blocked Virgilio’s extra point attempt, and Estero was down 14-6.
Just 13 seconds later, Gilstad recovered a fumble. Two plays after that, Hall completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Andrew Layton. The two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving Estero behind 14-12 with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter.
Estero forced the Dreadnaughts to punt on their next possession. Then the two teams essentially traded interceptions – Don’te Galloway picked off Hall, and Layton picked off Lakeland’s Jimmy Fryzel.
Estero couldn’t capitalize on Layton’s interception, however, and the Dreadnaughts got the ball for what would be their final drive.
On third and goal with just eight yards to go, Lakeland junior quarterback Johnnie Jones dropped back to pass.
Jones, who at that point had rushed for 75 yards, lost 13 of them when Gilstad sacked him, forcing a fourth and 19.
Lakeland kicker Brendt Talcott, who on Friday extended his state record of 74 consecutive extra points, missed the 37-yard field goal, which gave Estero the ball on the 20 with just 2:13 remaining.
That’s all for now. I’ll find out within the next few Fridays if another team wants to insert itself on my list for future years…..