Marion County 2021 High School Football Preview
Last year’s high school football season wasn’t ideal for a lot of reasons, mostly related to playing under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fall sports in general didn’t even begin practice last year until late August. It was a decision that came directly from the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Preseason games were affected, and regular seasons were truncated for some teams. In 2020, it was all about overcoming the obstacles coming from off the field as players, coaches and fans were faced with the unique challenges that come with a once-in-a-century worldwide pandemic.
But as the 2021 season gets ready to kick-off, the specter of the COVID-19 delta variant and a new surge is at the forefront. How it could affect the season remains to be seen. For now, area football teams are looking to get back on the gridiron.
Before the first whistle of the regular season blows on Aug. 27, we take a glance at each Marion County team and how they fared in 2020, and what each program looks to accomplish in 2021.
District: 6A-5 (along with Lecanto, Pasco, Springstead and Vanguard)
Head Coach: Brady Ackerman, 2nd Season
Ranked: 466th in Florida; 76th in Division 6A; 85th in Orlando
Last Season: 1-7 overall record
Belleview Head Coach Brady Ackerman, who replaced Adam Martin last November, is looking to continue the gains his squad made in 2020.
“We are in the process of changing the culture here in our football program,” said Ackerman, a former player at the University of Florida, earning a SEC Championship ring in 1991. “We want to be competitive and compete for a winning season.”
The Rattlers lost their first seven games last year, before winning a tightly fought defensive game in their season finale at Umatilla, 10-0.
Despite winning its last game, Belleview would ultimately lose their 5A Region 2 play-in game to North Marion on a neutral field, 47-0.
But Ackerman is confident in his veteran players coming out and giving Belleview fans their best efforts, starting in the first game, a rematch against Umatilla on Aug. 27.
“We have a good group of seniors that deserve to have some success,” Ackerman said. “And we feel like we are on track to give them that. It takes time to build a winning program that lasts, but with the community’s support, we can make Belleview one of the best programs in the county once again.”
Key Returners: Jackson Dennis, senior, wide receiver; Jahari Baker, senior, defensive back; Eugene Reed, senior, running back; Dylan Kennard, senior, center; Mike Minor, senior, defensive tackle; Justin Swander, senior, wide receiver; Andrew Lanctot, junior, wide receiver; Cornelius Bentley Green, junior, linebacker; Cedric Durden, junior, wide receiver; Erick McGlaughlin, junior, running back; Nick Didato, junior, defensive end; Ethan Dodsworth, sophomore, offensive tackle
Key Newcomers: Earnest Flythe, junior, quarterback; Gerald Lawton, freshman, wide receiver; Jermaine White, freshman, wide receiver; Brittin Stevens, freshman, quarterback; Kaleb Harrold, senior, wide receiver; King Hubbert, senior, defensive back; Aiden Kaczmerski, freshman, kicker
Key Losses: None.
District: 5A-5 (along with Citrus, Crystal River, Lake Weir and Leesburg)
Head Coach: Price Harris, 8th Season
Ranked: 74th in Florida; 8th in Division 5A; 17th in Orlando
Last Season: 10-2 overall record, 4-2 in the playoffs (5A Region 2 Champion, reached 5A State Final Four)
In 2020, Dunnellon advanced to the Class 5A Final Four for the second time in three years, losing by less than a field goal to Rickards (Tallahassee), 26-24. Rickards would go on to lose to American Heritage in the state final 24-6.
During the regular season, the Tigers ran the table, going undefeated against Lake Weir (53-0), Belleview (48-8), North Marion (32-8), Vanguard (30-28), Forest (10-7) and West Port (35-0).
In the Class 5A regional playoffs, Dunnellon made short work of Eastside (Gainesville) in the 5A Region 2 play-in game (50-0) and squeaked past North Marion in the Region 2 quarterfinals (13-7).
Menendez (St. Augustine) forfeited its semifinal game, setting up a Dunnellon vs. Vanguard matchup in the Class 5A Region 2 championship, which the Tigers won in a close contest, 13-10, to advance to the final four.
In 2021, Dunnellon considers each game on its schedule to be tough, said Head Coach Price Harris. The Tigers overlook no one.
“Our expectations never change,” Harris said. “We expect to compete for a district championship and make a run in the playoffs. Our goal each and every year is to put a team on the field that honors our past and gives our community a sense of pride.”
Key Returners: LJ Fitzpatrick, senior, wide receiver; Jaden Dyer, senior, offensive linebacker; Brody Luckey, senior, running back; Arrieon High, senior, running back; Trent Townsend, senior, quarterback; Kelo Jeffries, senior, defensive linebacker; Kaden Richardson, senior, offensive line; AJ Winn, senior, defensive line
Key Newcomers: Gage Hiers, junior, offensive line; Jaylin Johnson, junior, offensive line; Bolden Richardson, senior, offensive line; Gavyn Leinenbach, junior, linebacker; Maxwell Valcius, junior, wide receiver; CJ Donahoe, senior, wide receiver; Senadrick Brown, senior, wide receiver; Caleb Lathrop, senior, defensive line
Key Losses: Demetrius McCants, Colby Smith, Shai’hem Thomas and Drew Leinenbach
District: 7A-2 (along with Buchholz, Chiles and Leon)
Head Coach: Robin Williams, 3rd Season
Ranked: 129th in Florida; 30th in Division 7A; 33rd in Orlando
Last Season: 3-4 overall record, 0-1 in the playoffs
Forest opened the 2020-21 season with a bang, winning a defensive game against North Marion 7-0 on the road.
The rest of the season would be a mixture of highs and lows for the program, including a loss to Vanguard, 20-14, followed by 42-0 Wildcat win over Belleview.
After the Belleview blowout, the Wildcats would take two straight losses against West Port 19-13 and Dunnellon 10-7, all down to the wire.
Continuing its up-and-down woes, Forest would rollover Lake Weir 38-0, but ultimately lose to Edgewater 47-14 in the 7A Region 2 play-in game.
Head Coach Robin Williams, who used to play high school football at Vanguard, has been coaching high school football in some capacity since 2006. He feels his Wildcats should have a winning record this year, make the playoffs again and play for a district and county championship.
“Expectations are high,” said Williams. “We are slowly building this program back to being a consistent playoff team and competing for the top spot in the county.”
With a whole new defensive staff, headed by new Defensive Coordinator Matt Franklin, Williams sees a continuation of last season’s strong defensive mindset going forward into 2021.
“Our goal is always to put a great product on the field,” said Williams. “A product that represents the community and makes them proud to call themselves Wildcats fans.”
Key Returners: Jamarrius Burkes, senior, wide receiver; Elijah Russell, defensive end; Steve Curry, senior, quarterback; Damion Lewis, junior, running back; Jabrel Samuel, wide receiver; Josh Pitts, junior, defensive tackle; Omarion Leslie, junior, linebacker
Key Newcomers: Trimar Cave, defensive back; Daniel Sneller, defensive end
Key Losses: Zach Williams, Danny Gray and Nylo Seymour
District: 5A-5 (along with Dunnellon, Citrus, Crystal River and Leesburg)
Head Coach: Eoghan Cullen, 2nd Season
Ranked: 451st in Florida; 65th in Division 5A; 81st in Orlando
Last Season: 1-6 overall record
The Hurricanes’ season ended on a sour note last year on Nov. 13 when the ‘Canes lost in overtime 6-3 to Atlantic (Port Orange).
In fact, the only high note in 2020 came on Oct. 9 when Lake Weir won its lone win in 2020 in a close game against Belleview—18-6 on the road.
Lake Weir allowed 219 points in 2020, while only scoring 27. The Hurricanes will be working to remedy that disparity in 2021.
“We’re excited about this upcoming season given that we’ve had a full offseason, unlike last year. We have a lot of youth and they bring a good work ethic, said Head Coach Eoghan Cullen.
Key Returners: Skyler Spaulding, senior, inside linebacker; Jearld Smith, senior, middle linebacker; Dwayne Reid, senior, cornerback; Manny Geisel, junior; quarterback; Robert McKinley, senior, wide receiver; Brandon Moak, junior, wide receiver; Ja’Mauri Jackson, junior, defensive end; Devonte Welcome, junior, wide receiver; Walter Turner, junior, running back
Key Newcomers: Jeremiah Smith, freshman, cornerback; Kalil Lawson, freshman, safety; Omarion Watts, freshman, defensive end
Key Losses: Tyrese Terry, Elijah Williams, Corone Williams, Preston Guyton and Rheon Johnson
District: 5A-4 (along with Clay, Eastside, Menendez and Palatka)
Head Coach: Willie Offord, 1st Season (Replacing Gregory Carr)
Ranked: 292nd in Florida; 37th in Division 5A; 57th in Orlando
Last Season: 3-6 overall record, 0-1 in playoffs
The Colts opened last year’s season against Forest, and they do so again this year on Aug. 27. This time though, North Marion is looking for more success, losing in 2020 7-0.
And one player North Marion hopes will help them accomplish that goal is new Sophomore Quarterback AJ Cussins. Cussins replaced graduated quarterback Quintin Gross from a year ago.
After winning their regular season finale against Belleview last year, the Colts would go on to defeat the Rattlers again in the opening round of the 5A Region 2 playoffs, 47-0, before narrowly losing their next contest to county powerhouse Dunnellon, 13-7, in the region quarterfinals, ending any further playoff hopes.
In 2021, North Marion will need to navigate a tough schedule, with several back-to-back district rival games earmarked in the middle of the schedule, and a possibly consequential Dunnellon game on the road on Oct. 8.
Key Returners: Jeriahmiah Mack, senior, cornerback; Trent Hoffman, senior, wide receiver; Chaz Mackey, senior, quarterback; Terrence Kennedy Jr., senior, running back; Ed Williams, senior, running back; Hunter Kapral, senior, middle linebacker
Key Newcomers: AJ Cussins, sophomore, quarterback; Andrew Zock, sophomore, defensive end; Caleb Rollerson, sophomore, wide receiver
Key Losses: Quintin Gross
District: 6A-5 (along with Lecanto, Pasco, Springstead and Belleview)
Head Coach: Edwin Farmer, 8th Season
Ranked: 125th in Florida; 22nd in Division 6A; 31st in Orlando
Last Season: 8-3 overall record, 3-2 in the playoffs (5A Region 2 runner-up)
If Vanguard football showed one major weakness in 2020, then that weakness was most definitely Dunnellon—losing to the Tigers 30-28 during the regular season and again in the 5A Region 2 final, 13-10.
Despite impressive wins in the playoffs, over such teams as Crystal River (38-0 in the 5A Region 2 play-in game), Ridgeview (35-0 shutout in the regional quarterfinal) and Clay (38-7 in the regional semifinal), the Knights were once again unable to solve Dunnellon in the regional final.
Vanguard gets another chance against the Tigers early on in 2021, hosting Dunnellon at home on Sept. 10 at Booster Stadium.
Key Returners: Dewhitt Beterson Jr., senior, running back; Grandin Wilcox, senior, kicker; Mahdi Brooks, senior, wide receiver; Tyrell Randall, senior, running back; Tre Parker, senior, middle linebacker
Key Newcomers: Cameron Powell, sophomore, cornerback; Cameron King, sophomore, wide receiver; Fred Gaskin, sophomore, cornerback/running back/quarterback
Key Losses: Tony Johnson, AJ Law and Tevin Williams
District: 8A-3 (along with Apopka, Evans, Lake Brantley and Ocoee)
Head Coach: Steve Rhem, 3rd Season
Ranked: 207th in Florida; 44th in Division 8A; 45th in Orlando
Last Season: 5-3 overall record, 0-1 in the playoffs
The Wolf Pack accomplished a lot early on in the 2020 regular season. They won two tight games against Belleview (18-17) and North Marion (24-13), before ultimately earning their first loss to inter-county rival Vanguard (43-6).
West Port would then go on a two-game winning streak, blanking Lake Weir 34-0 and squeaking past Forest 19-13. Both were games at home.
But the last two games of 2020 tell a different story of the season: the Wolf Pack took a beating from Dunnellon 35-0 in West Port’s season finale, on the road which they followed up with another loss to the Spruce Creek (Port Orange) Hawks 35-12 in the 8A Region 1 quarterfinals.
Like most teams in the county, West Port is hoping to solve Dunnellon this year during the regular season. In the hope that beating Dunnellon makes the Wolf Pack that much closer to beating a Dunnellon-like team in the playoffs and punching their ticket for a deeper postseason run in 2021.
Key Returners: Gavin Savino, senior, quarterback; Jylique Barnes, senior, wide receiver; Nate Rocker II, senior, strong safety; Peter Finn, sophomore, defensive tackle
Key Newcomers: Ayden DeMartino, freshman, outside linebacker; Sawyer Hart, freshman, quarterback; Deanthony Sancho, freshman, wide receiver
Key Losses: N/A
District: Gulf Division—Sunshine State Athletic Conference
Head Coach: Jim Pierce, 1st Season
Last Season: 1-9 overall record
With eight seniors and five juniors returning, Head Coach Jim Pierce has high expectations for his Crusaders football team, who just moved from an 11-man squad a year ago to an 8-man squad for the 2021 season.
The 8-man setup, according to Pierce, will allow Ocala Christian Academy to avoid playing every player on each side of the football, offense and defense, nonstop throughout a game.
“You can’t condition for that,” said Pierce. “You can condition to play offense every play, but you can’t condition in Florida to play both offense and defense every play.”
In 2020, despite finishing with a 1-9 record, Pierce said that his team has a lot of character, due in large part to the program’s many returning seniors and juniors.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans,” said Pierce. “We’re going to have seven to nine seniors that are going to play a lot, which helps the younger ones learn.”
Also, 2021 marks OCA’s 49th school year, according to Pierce.
“We have the distinction of having the longest-running football program of any private school in the county,” said Pierce.
Key Returners: Keiron Williams, senior; A.J. Council, senior; Logan Forella, senior; Trey Woods, senior; Joey Sanzone, senior; Cian Bloom, junior
Key Newcomers: Daniel Young, junior; M.J. Decicco, junior; Skyler Forella, sophomore; Cole Helinski, junior
Key Losses: Jett Bloom, wide receiver; Colton Bloom, quarterback; Rushad Davis, defensive tackle
District: Sunshine State—Central Florida (along with City of Life Christian Academy, Eastland Christian, Lake Mary Prep, Real Life Christian Academy)
Head Coach: Tim Montenero, 1st Season (Replacing Joel Bronson)
Last Season: Played two games before cancelling season due to COVID-19
St. John Lutheran was adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as far as football is concerned.
With low-player numbers, the Saints were forced to field only 15 kids for an 11-man football squad, losing both games to the only two schools they played—Cedar Creek Christian (54-0) and Halifax Academy (54-19).
In 2021, St. John will work to field more players and complete its season scheduled to start on Aug. 20 against Lakeside Christian at home.
Key Returners: Ryan Cubbedge, senior, quarterback; Jaelen Facey, senior, defensive tackle; Chase Thomas, senior, defensive tackle; Dylan Hicks, senior, center;
Key Newcomers: Chris Espinosa, junior, guard
Key Losses: N/A
District: 3A Region 1 (along with Crescent City, Episcopal (Jacksonville), Florida High (Tallahassee), Interlachen, Maclay (Tallahassee), P.K. Yonge (Gainesville), Pensacola Catholic, Providence (Jacksonville), Walton (DeFuniak Springs))
Head Coach: John Brantley, 2nd Season
Ranked: 50th in Florida; 6th in Division 3A; 14th in Orlando
Last Season: 7-4 overall record, 3-1 in the playoffs (3A Region 2 Champion, reached State Final Four)
Trinity Catholic struggled a bit during a bad patch of games in the middle of its season in 2020, but managed to right the ship towards the end of the schedule, earning a long playoff run.
The Celtics aim to do exactly the same thing in 2021.
“I feel just like every year,” said Head Coach John Brantley, “we’re going to be competitive, and we’re going to make a run at everything.”
After notching wins against South Sumter (48-31) and Gainesville (38-7) to start the season in 2020, the Celtics went on a three-game slump, dropping games to The Villages Charter (27-25), Bolles (24-7) and Sandalwood (17-14).
But with much-needed wins against Victory Christian Academy on the road (20-7) and Calvary Christian at home (27-24), Trinity Catholic earned a slot in the 3A state playoffs.
The Celtics faced Taylor (Pierson) in the Region 2 semifinals—after Melbourne Central Catholic forfeited in the quarterfinals—winning convincingly 49-0. In an almost identical rout, Trinity Catholic beat John Carroll Catholic 48-0 in the Region 2 championship game, before falling to Trinity Christian Academy (Jacksonville) 56-33 in the state semifinal.
Trinity Christian would go on to win the 3A state title.
With senior Cole Gonzales returning to the field as Trinity Catholic’s top triggerman, Brantley feels confident his team will continue were it left off in 2020.
“Anytime you got a quarterback coming back who’s been in your system now for years that really helps. But we got to surround him with some good players—and we got them. We got the size up front. We’re looking forward to these kids playing this year,” said Brantley.
Key Returners: Cole Gonzales, senior, quarterback; Tommy Kinsler, junior, guard; Donathan Lecorn, junior, outside linebacker
Key Newcomers: Gerrick Gordon, freshman, guard
Key Losses: Jamarian Samuel, Omarea James and T.J. Snowden
All above rankings are from MaxPreps.com.