JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every team that reaches the state finals has overcome some adversity. Sometimes it’s injuries or a slump. Sometimes, it’s just mud.
Mandarin (10-4) plays for the 8A football championship at 8 p.m. on Saturday in Orlando, and on Wednesday, they had to move practice about 2 1/2 miles down the road to the Mandarin Athletic Association's field because their practice field was too muddy to use after recent rainstorms.
That obstacle was a minor one compared to the turnaround engineered by head coach Bobby Ramsay. Last year, Mandarin went 2-8. This year, they added one of the top quarterbacks in the city, Carson Beck. As the season went on, Ramsay says they had a turning-point game in October when they beat Apopka. Since that game, the Mustangs only loss came in overtime to Fletcher.
"I knew we would be better this year with what we had coming back, and the way the guys went about their training in the offseason, I knew we were going to be a better football team," Ramsay said. "I think when it really flipped was the Apopka game, when we went down there on the road and everybody was sort of feeling sorry for us that we had to play, and we went down there and won convincingly. From that point on, we've been in a lot of close games and guys are going out there looking to make the final play to win the game."
On Saturday, when Mandarin faces Miami Columbus (14-0), it will mark the first appearance in the state finals for the Mustangs. It’s a season that has meant a lot to the players, the school, the community and to Ramsay personally.
"I look forward to seeing a lot of happy faces and feeling great about these guys and the school and the program having that state title," Ramsay said. "The community is excited, the kids are excited and we're just trying to ride that now."
Columbus offers a huge test for Mandarin. The Explorers are unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in the state and 25th in the country. Their closest game came against Booker T. Washington, a 28-21 win. In the post-season, Columbus averages 46 points per game, which could set up a shootout on Saturday.
"Defensively, we've got to do a good job against the run game," Ramsay said. "They throw a lot at you, so it's going to come down to what, what's their strategy? Are they going to come out and go up tempo-tempo? Are they going to pack it in and try to run the football running games? Sometimes you have two high powered-powered offenses get together, and it kind of surprises. Sometimes, it's not as high-scoring as would have been anticipated."
If Mandarin wins, they will join Raines as the only Duval County public schools to win a state title since the Florida High School Athletic Association came into existence in 1964.