JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A trip to the final four never gets old, even at Bolles, where heading to the state semifinals is an ingrained tradition.
After the Bulldogs used Ty Neal’s 185 rushing yards, Kavon Miller’s versatility and an effort from the defensive line that will give Raines nightmares for some time to come, players celebrated their 21-14 victory Friday night like it was something new, even though it was the 100th playoff victory in program history.
In a way it is new, though. Each season is a different experience, and after winning the Region 1-2M final at Skinner-Barco Stadium, this group wants to return to another tradition — state championships, with 11 total, but the last of which came in 2011.
“It’s what you expect when you come to Bolles,” said senior defensive lineman Tanner Hogan, who will make his fourth state semifinal appearance after recording three tackles for loss. “You know every season you’re going to the final four. But we’re not just stopping at the final four. We’re going to go all the way.”
That will require getting past Plantation American Heritage (12-1) in a road game after the second overall seed in the state secured a 31-20 victory over Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons, the third-ranked team in the state in Class 2M.
While there was talk of renewing acquaintances of the area’s rivalry of the 2010s, most of the names and faces have changed since that last meeting in 2016. But Bolles (9-4), which was the third seed in the region, has been here before with this group. In all four of coach Matt Toblin’s seasons at the school, the Bulldogs have reached the state semifinals.
“The four for four, I’m just proud of this group,” Toblin said. “This group has just fought their butts off and got better each week. I think there were times when people thought there was no way we were going to get to the point, and here we are. I’m very proud of the kids.”
Things might have come into question early in the season. Bolles was very un-Bolles-like with a losing record after five games and four total losses this season. But those defeats came to playoff teams and defending state champions, with losses against Brunswick, Trinity Christian, Savannah Benedictine and a one-point close-shave against Bishop Kenny.
“We graduated a group of really good players,” Toblin said. “At Bolles, you want to find out how good you can be, and you’re only going to do that if you’re playing really good opponents. Those are special teams that pushed us to find out how good we could be and forced us to adapt as coaches and players to get better.”
The Bulldogs have gone through the playoffs, wrecking Episcopal, defeating Orlando Bishop Moore with a big second half and then never trailing against fifth-seed Raines (9-3).
While the Vikings’ defense is similar to Bolles in that it can dominate game, the Bulldogs have forced more than twice the turnovers that Raines has this season, and that showed Friday night.
Hogan, along with fellow defensive linemen Martin Geary and Garrison Butler, spent great portions of the first half harrying Vikings quarterback Roman Doles, while linebacker Breeland Madison spent time in the backfield and Trent Carter was all over the field.
And of course, there was the versatile Miller, who ended Raines’ second drive by picking off Doles on a deflection.
Bolles moved down the field after that, using nine successive runs by Neal, who got the ball all the way to the 3-yard line. There, Miller came in and two plays later, he scored out of the Wildcat for a 7-0 lead.
At the start of the second half, the Bulldogs struck again. Mark Miller danced out of the backfield, but Carter recorded his sixth forced fumble of the season, recovering it as well at the Vikings 38.
“We’re really excited, obviously, and we just play Bolles football, fast, violent, and let the outcome be the outcome,” said Carter, a junior making his second trip the final four. “I saw the guy running in the zone. We practiced it all week. Pretty good at strips. So I just tackled him and ripped it.”
On the next play, Neal raced 38 yards for a 14-0 lead. It was part of a dominant first half for Neal, who had 134 of his yards in the opening 24 minutes and finished with 185 of his team’s 270 total yards.
“My body’s a little banged up right now, but I’ll take an ice bath, Epsom salt, and I’ll be right back at it,” said Neal, a sophomore making his second semifinal appearance. “You just have to keep running physical no matter what happens.”
Raines had minus-12 rushing yards in the first quarter and could not set things right until after halftime. Then, the Vikings put together an 11-play drive of 5 minutes and 30 seconds to start the half, ending when Doles hit Miller along the right sideline for an 11-yard scoring pass to trim the deficit to 14-7.
The Bulldogs answered in the final quarter, however. After banging Neal into the Raines defense, Bolles brought in Miller with the Wildcat formation on a third-and-2 from the Raines 36. He went toward the line, but pulled up and threw a jump pass to tight end Connor Cox, who shed a couple of defenders for the score and a 21-7 advantage with little more than seven minutes left in the contest.
The Vikings threatened at times, getting to the Bolles 41 on one possession before punting and then scoring on a deflected pass from Doles to Ty’ren Randolph with 4:34 remaining. But with Raines facing fourth-and-10 at its 32 following three consecutive incompletions, the Vikings opted to punt with three timeouts and 2:37 left.
Neal made sure they never saw the ball again, picking up yards and setting Miller up for a carry to get the game-sealing first down. A couple more Neal runs and the clock ran out.
The celebration started as players peeled off from the handshake line and yelled and screamed like it was the first trip to the state semifinals.
The tradition continues, even for younger guys such as Neal. It never gets old.
“I traveled with the team to Cocoa (in the semifinals) last season,” Neal said. “But now we’re here again. It feels great, better than ever.”
Bolles 21, Raines 14
Raines, 0, 0, 7, 7 —14
Bolles 7, 7, 0, 7 — 21
B – Kavon Miller 2 run (Matthew Berry kick)
B – Ty Neal 38 run (Berry kick)
R – Mark Miller 11 pass from Roman Doles (Jonathan Downer-Barrett kick)
B – Connor Cox 36 pass from K. Miller (Berry kick)
R – Ty’ren Randolph 16 pass from Doles (Downer-Barrett kick)
Category: R — B
First downs: 11 — 15
Rushes-yards: 27-135 — 41-182
Passing: 93 — 88
Comp-Att-Int: 9-19-1 5-12-0
Fumbles-lost: 3-1 — 1-0
Penalties-Yards: 10-90 — 8-83
RUSHING — R: M. Miller 6-72, Doles 15-50, Sincere Cohen 6-13. B: Neal 35-185, K. Miller 3-8, D.J. Moore 1-(-2), Team 2-(-9).
PASSING — R: Doles 9-19-1-93. B: Moore 4-11-0-52, K. Miller 1-1-0-36.
RECEIVING — R: Randolph 3-36, Jadarian Rollins 2-19, Terrell Sheppard 1-16, Kyle Gilyard 2-11, M. Miller 1-11. B: Cox 3-62, Naeem Burroughs 2-26.