Miami Central’s second loss of the season two months ago put the three-time defending Class 6A champions in an unusual position — on the road for the first three weeks of the postseason.
District runner-ups don’t get home-field advantage.
But the inconvenient road, created when the Rockets lost to Carol City on Oct. 3, may have made Central more resilient. The Miami-Dade powers, ranked No. 1 in the state according to MaxPreps, have won six straight games since, including their three postseason road outings against Boyd Anderson, Carol City and Mainland.
Central’s perseverance pays off Friday night as it plays host to its first playoff game against Naples (11-1) at Traz Powell Stadium in Miami.
“We have to do a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage,” said Central coach Roland Smith, whose team is also ranked 31st nationally by MaxPreps. “That’s our bread and butter, running the ball.”
The teams met once before in a state semifinal with Miami Central winning 48-33 in 2012 before claiming the state crown with a 37-14 win over Gainesville.
Naples faces a more savvier Rockets team this time around. Despite returning just three players on offense from a year ago, Central is the favorite after averaging 33 points per game in its last six contests.
“We want to be one of the best programs not only in the state but in the nation,” Smith said. “We do things to make sure our kids are better prepared every year. We put our kids in the best possible chance to win with the skill sets they have.”
With a win, they would become just the third team in state history to advance to six straight title games. Central has won a state title in four out of its last five seasons and finished 2014 ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today.
They have a quarterback, Jerrod Harris, who’s been lights out over the last six games, passing for 981 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. He could become just the fifth quarterback in state history to win back-to-back titles.
“He’s stepped his game up and getting the ball to playmakers,” Smith said. “When he does that, we’re hard to defend.”
Central has three running backs who have gained more than 450 yards, including team leader Kywan Smith (590 yards, 5 TDs) and freshman James Cook (463 yards, 4 TDs), the brother of Florida State star running back Dalvin Cook.
The Rockets are allowing just a hair over 7 points per game and have done their most damage in the third quarter, outscoring opponents 110-35. Keir Smith and Eric Mitchell, two key defensive linemen, have combined for 36 sacks, while defensive backs Jamel Cook and Jamal Hudson have combined for nine interceptions and three touchdowns.
In 2012, the Rockets scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against Naples to overcome a halftime deficit.
But penalties have been an issue the last two weeks. They were flagged 23 times for 188 yards against Mainland and 16 times for 155 yards against Carol City.
“We just have to make sure we concentrate on doing the little things and not put ourselves in bad situations,” said Smith, who took over the team in 2013 from Telly Lockette. “That can help us win tight ball games. If we clean up the mistakes, we can be more explosive.”
Central will also be without leading receiver Jernard Phillips (ankle), an explosive vertical threat who’s caught 24 passes for 451 yards.
Central has a clear gameplan against Naples: establish control early and adjust when the time calls for it.
“When you have a game, you have to do a great job of making adjustments at halftime,” Smith said. “We’ve made adjustments at halftime and corrected mistakes. We just want to make sure we don’t make those same mistakes and we’re in control.”