Title game test arrives for Bolles

Bulldogs face Miami Washington for 4A crown on Wednesday night

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The last full practice of the season was winding down and Matt Toblin made sure to drive home the point.

Take time to enjoy the moment. Soak it in. This is it.

Bolles (11-1) faces Miami Booker T. Washington (12-2) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Daytona Stadium in Daytona Beach for the Class 4A state championship, a matchup that few could have projected as the season began.

The game is the renewal of a playoff rivalry that nearly started the decade off (they first played in 2011) and now ends it. For Bolles, it’s the capper on a season that felt much different than the ones before it.

A new coaching staff was brought in, the first football overhaul at the school since Corky Rogers was brought on in 1989.

Bolles responded to Toblin, who was hired from Ponte Vedra, in typical Bolles fashion.

By winning.

“It’s just the growth. It’s every single day coming out and trying to be better and pursuing excellence …,” Toblin said. “Our kids have done a great job of that and our staff has done a great job of that. If you find ways to get better every single day you get out there, eventually you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”

The Tornadoes have been typical Booker T., mowing down opponents across the south Florida landscape and ready to launch a new championship era after three seasons with no titles. All five titles that Washington has won have come against teams from the First Coast (Nease in 2007, Bolles from 2012-14 and Raines in 2015).

While Bolles remains at the top of the state championship record book with 11 titles, playing for No. 12 didn’t seem realistic early in 2019. The Bulldogs opened the year with a new coaching staff — it was the first time since 1988 that neither Rogers nor Wayne Belger was in charge — and a loss to University Christian.

The refrain was one that Rogers always used, and one Toblin has lived by.

Work hard. Believe in each other. Always enjoy the moment, even the mundane ones.

“Coach Toblin has made an emphasis on, it’s not just the destination that we look forward to, it’s the journey along the way and all the hard work that we put in,” said tight end and linebacker Simon Brackin.

“I thought about it somewhere deep in the back of my mind, but I had doubts about it [this type of season]. We worked. The amount of work we put in the offseason, the summer, even during the season, it’s just a testament of what Coach Toblin says. Work hard, love one another and 11 hats to the football. I think that’s something we’ve embodied throughout the year. We really bought in to the system and it helped us out in the end. Last team [still playing] in the area."

That hard work has taken Bolles from that disappointing Week 1 loss through a season that has shown no signs of slowing down. They’ve beaten larger programs (Creekside, Mainland, St. Augustine) in the regular season and knocked off South Walton and Bradford in the regional rounds before turning in their performance of the season in the state semifinals against Cocoa.

Bolles scored 17 points after halftime, including touchdown passes from Jeremiah Johnson to Davis Ellis and Gunner Boree, to stun the Tigers, 20-14.

“We played [Cocoa] in 2016 for our state championship game and that was what we talked about all year, Round 4, Cocoa,” said offensive lineman Sam Levin. “Are we going to be ready for them? Are we going to be prepared? We were prepared. I expect a good game [Wednesday]. Booker T’s a great team. But you see what happened in 2011.”

The Bulldogs and Tornadoes have met four times since 2011.

Bolles was a heavy underdog against a young and explosive Washington team that season and pulled off a 33-25 upset for the last of their 11 state titles. The Tornadoes beat Bolles in the state title game from 2012-14, and then beat Raines for a four-peat in 2015.

The game itself needs no buildup. It’s the biggest of the season. Toblin said it’s trying to help players slow down the moment and enjoy the periphery of it all. The final practice. The bus ride.

He’s been there before.

Toblin said that was driven home to him when he was coaching defensive backs at Nease during its Class 4A state championship season in 2005. He sat down on the bus after a 44-37 win over Seffner Armwood and that’s when the reality check came.

He and Nease assistant Danny Cowgill would often break things down on the bus ride back that they could have done differently and adjust it for the next week.

During that trip back, he realized that there was no more next week to plan for with the same group of players.

“We don’t get another opportunity to get better,” Toblin said. “You get so one track [minded], like, ‘look, let’s get better. Doesn’t matter, get better. Doesn’t matter, get better.’ And you get to that last game and you’re like, ‘that’s it, we’re done.’ We’re done.”

“As a coach, you get to transition to the next team, but obviously with this group it is incredibly special. Not just because of what they’ve been able to accomplish, but obviously, selfishly for myself. The first time I met them I said, ‘you didn’t choose me, I chose you.’ To buy in and believe and have the trust that they’ve had, it’s awesome. Unbelievable.”

Class 4A state championship

Bolles (11-1) vs. Miami Booker T. Washington (12-2)

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Daytona Stadium, Daytona Beach

Parking: $10

Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 day of

Webcast: Can be streamed here. Cost is $9.99

Road to the title game: Bolles d. South Walton, 62-6; d. Bradford, 16-6; d. Cocoa, 20-14; Washington d. Miami Carol City, 35-14; d. Gulliver Prep, 34-31; d. Cardinal Gibbons, 31-21; d. Lakewood, 9-7

Records against playoff teams in regular season: Bolles (3-1), Washington (5-1)

Statistics: Washington and Bolles

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