JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – David Penland III has been around the University Christian football program for a long time.
He attended the school, graduating in 2002, then served as an assistant coach and the last 12 as the head coach of the Christians.
So, when his UC team beat Trinity Christian for the first time in 30 years, he knew how significant it was. And to do it in the playoffs to earn a spot in the final four? That made it one of the biggest wins in recent school history.
That’s saying something for a school with nine state championships, three of them under Penland.
“That was huge for our program. It’s been 30 years,” Penland said. “It’s something that I personally wanted to do, to finally beat Trinity. I played them as a player and lost. As a coach and lost, so it was definitely a surreal moment.”
Penland, the all-time wins leader among University Christian football coaches, has taken UC to five state finals, winning championships in 2012, 2015, and 2016.
On Wednesday, he held a practice in intermittent rain as he prepared his team for a final four matchup.
UC has been led on both sides of the ball by Orel Gray, who has run for 1,858 yards, second most in the area, and 29 touchdowns. He averages 155 yards per game on the ground. He has also scored seven two-point conversions and has scored twice on interception returns, once on a punt return and three times has taken kickoffs back for touchdowns. He averages nearly 19 points a game by himself. Penland said Gray, who is approaching 4,000 yards rushing for his career, has always been a terrific running back, but he has grown into a leader on the team.
“I figured that out once I saw a lot of younger kids looking up to me,” Gray said. “When I was in their position, I always looked up to somebody. Being in eighth grade, I looked up to all the juniors and seniors. I was like, ‘That had to be me.’”
One of the challenges for UC this year will be to move past the historic win over Trinity Christian, a game fitting of a state championship-level celebration.
“We addressed that on Monday,” Penland said. “We beat Trinity. We celebrated this weekend. It’s gone. We’re on to a new team and it’s going to be another challenge. Another tough game. We have to have the same week of practice we had last week.”
This season, UC’s path to the final four included wins over The First Academy and Trinity Christian. On Friday, they host Clearwater Central Catholic (11-1), which hasn’t lost a game since Sept. 2 when they fell 35-29 to Ocala Trinity Catholic.
Clearwater Central Catholic is a team built around a strong running game. Senior running back Lenwood Sapp has rushed for 1,117 yards and 13 touchdowns while sophomore quarterback Jershaun Newton has rushed for 1,169 yards and 15 touchdowns. Both average over 97 yards per game on the ground. As a passer, Newton has been accurate, completing nearly 67% of his passes, with 20 touchdowns and only two interceptions, but his longest pass is 15 yards.
“Everybody at this point is good,” Penland said. “There’s no slouch in the final four or the championship. We’re approaching this week as a totally new team that could be just as good or better than you and the play you just played before.”
Defensively, Clearwater Central Catholic’s Carson Schiavello leads the way with six sacks and nine tackles for loss. The Marauders have allowed more than 21 points only twice this season. Once in the loss to Trinity Catholic, and the other in a 63-35 win over IMG Academy White in the regular season finale.
If University Christian can win, it would give the school the chance at a 10th state title, which would break the tie with Trinity Christian for second most in the area behind Bolles’ 11.
“We know it’s ‘win or go home.’ You have to play hard like you have no more plays,” Gray said. “We know that we have to execute each play at practice. There are a lot of people who haven’t won a state championship. We’re just hungry. We’re the underdogs at everything. We know what we have to do to make it.”