Two years ago, Godby and Suwannee were both in the same district, but each school’s football programs were in two different places.
The Bulldogs lost 54-0 to the eventual Class 5A state champion Cougars that year and needed to leave the district after that season to continue a revitalization under then-first-year head coach Jamie Rodgers.
Rodgers, previously a successful defensive coordinator at Baker County, got four-time state champion Suwannee (3A, 1987-90) back on track, going from 3-7 that first year, to 7-3 and second in District 5-5A in 2013, and now district champion with a 14-1 overall record.
“Growing up in Macclenny and being from Baker County my whole life, we played Suwannee every year,” Rodgers said.
“I was in middle school when they were making runs to state championships. I remembered the tradition and all the player’s names— Matt Friar— that had contributed to so many wins. When I got here, it seemed like all that had been forgotten.”
Rodgers brought the history back, pulling former players in to speak about the proud history of Bulldogs football. It took, fairly quickly.
“I was a defensive coordinator for seven years before I got my own head job,” Rodgers said.
“Some places, (your plan) works and some places it doesn’t for whatever reason. I didn’t envision it happening this fast because of the shape the program was in when I got here. Football was an afterthought. It was as bad and as low as it could get when I got the job, but we had kids willing to work really hard. And we had a really good sophomore class.”
That sophomore class is now a dynamic bunch of 16 seniors, headlined by running back Denzel Washington, who leads a team that dominated Lakewood, 37-0, last week.
Godby (11-2) feels confident that not only will its roster size, which is double that of Suwannee, pay dividends in Friday night’s state semifinal, but actual physical size will as well, especially on the Cougars’ mammoth offensive and defensive lines.
“I think we match up with anybody that we play or anybody that we will play,” Godby running back P.J Simmons said. “I feel like we’ll be able to come out and do anything we want.”
That wasn’t always the case. Mid-year, Godby went to 3A Jacksonville Trinity Christian and got pushed around. Its running game went flat, and the Cougars lost.
“We weren’t cohesive that game, but we rebounded, shook it off and moved on,” said Simmons, who has rushed for 1,613 yards and 17 touchdowns. “Every team needs that one game, that reality check. It was our reality-check game and we realized we could be beat if we don’t play together.”
Since then, Godby has run off seven wins in a row and is hitting a stride reminiscent of two years ago. Cougars coach Todd Lanter said his team had its best day of practice early this week and the focus was clearly on the mission of being the last team standing after a long season of ups and downs, rivalry games and cupcakes.
“You start off big, then you go through a lull,” Lanter said. “When you’re fortunate enough to get to play 13, 14, 15 games, you hit that high period again, and I think we’re in that.”
Suwannee is on a huge high, and the community of Live Oak is alive and kicking. Last week, the Bulldogs were ushered out of town on its busses with all the area schools and its peoples lining the street. This week, the buzz is strong for the biggest game in the old town for quite some time.
The gameplan for Godby is simple: Don’t turn the ball over and score on every possession. Lanter believes Suwannee will attempt to control time of possession to keep the Cougars’ offense off the field, creating a scoring imperative.
Do that and Godby will be heading to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando for the state title game. Don’t and reborn Suwannee’s trophy case adds another keepsake.
“We couldn’t be more happy,” Simmons said. “Sixteen weeks, that’s what we’ve been focusing on since the season started. We’re one week away from that. We have to get after it.”
In Friday’s other 5A semifinal, Plantation American Heritage is at home against Orlando Bishop Moore.
FHSAA FinalsFridayClass 5A State Semifinal
•Godby at Live Oak Suwannee, 7:30 p.m.
Class 1A State Final
•Port. St. Joe vs. Hamilton County, 7 p.m., Orlando Citrus Bowl