JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They’re back.
Two great throws by Jeremiah Johnson, a punishing defense from open to close and a stunning fake punt with a minute and a half to play helped Bolles edge Cocoa 20-14 in the Class 4A state semifinals on Friday night.
Sure, there may be a new coaching staff, but it’s the same old Bolles (11-1).
The win, Bolles’ 11th consecutive, puts it in the 4A state championship game on Dec. 11 in Daytona Beach against another old rival, Miami Booker T. Washington (12-2). The Bulldogs’ final state championship came in 2011 in a 33-25 win over Washington. The Tornadoes then beat Bolles for state titles in 2012-14.
Things have changed quite a bit since the last time those teams met.
Iconic coach Corky Rogers retired following a loss to Cocoa in the 2016 title game. His replacement, Wayne Belger, retired following the 2018 season. A new coaching staff fronted by Matt Toblin has built Bolles into a title contender probably before anyone expected them to.
“This is an unbelievable group of guys,” said Toblin, who led Ponte Vedra to the state title game in 2016. “… Guys make plays when it’s their turn. But they bust their butts. It’s a hard-working group that has faith in each other and plays for each other.”
This one will be remembered for quite some time.
Backup quarterback Johnson had two of the best throws of his career, distance touchdowns to Gunner Boree at the end of the third quarter and a how-did-he-catch-it snare by Davis Ellis with 4:03 to go for a 20-7 lead that wasn’t safe.
Cocoa charged back to get within a score and felt like it would get at least one more drive after pushing the Bulldogs into a fourth-and-8 with 1:40 to play.
Then came the call.
Toblin said that it came from a suggestion by assistant Josh Hoekstra early in the game and he went with it when the moment came.
While Bolles’ defense was wicked on Friday night — it forced four turnovers and put the brakes on the Tigers all night — potentially giving Cocoa the ball at midfield if it didn’t work wasn’t a spot Toblin wanted to put his team in.
“Don’t worry about making a mistake, just go with that,” Toblin said. “Trust your coaching. Trust what you’ve done. And it was there. And we called it and it was the right call.”
Caden Fordham found Simon Brackin alone over the middle and hit the tight end in stride, finally getting dragged down at the 2. Kneeldowns followed.
“I couldn’t believe it at first to be honest,” Fordham said. “I’m grateful for coach believing in me. I did the best I could and it worked out. I hope we run it again.”
While the fake punt put the exclamation point on the win, Johnson’s production through the air helped Bolles finally solve a stout Tigers defense.
His first touchdown pass was on the money to Boree, who bobbled the pass between two defenders and brought it in before he hit the ground. That gave Bolles a 13-7 edge with a second to play in the third.
Johnson’s fourth-and-4 strike to Ellis was a gem.
Ellis, with a step on his man, one-handed the ball in the end zone and got a foot down, too, turning in perhaps the catch of the year. Kicker Matthew Berry added a pair of field goals for Bolles.
“At the end of last year and through this offseason there were a lot of people that thought [Bolles] was not a good job to take," Toblin said. "And there were a lot of people who had faith, not only in what Bolles has been, but believed in us as a group and a staff. We talked about that all year, this is where we want to be and have a chance to do it.”
University Christian’s drive for a 10th state championship will have to wait.
The Christians struggled on offense and suffered a 20-7 loss at Lakeland Victory Christian on Friday night. UC finished its season 11-2.
Down 14-7 in the third quarter, UC’s Desirrio Riles was intercepted at the 2. Cornelius Shaw made that turnover hurt, ripping off a 97-yard run down to the UC 1. His TD plunge after that put the Storm up 20-7.