Bolles savoring underdog role in state semifinal trip to American Heritage

Bolles travels to face Plantation American Heritage in the Class 2M state semifinals on Friday. (Kevin Nguyen, News4JAX)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the fourth time in four years since taking over as the head coach at Bolles, Matt Toblin is preparing for a final four game.

On Friday, the Bulldogs (9-4) travel to Plantation to face American Heritage, a team loaded with top recruits and ranked 10th in the country by MaxPreps. Bolles will be the decided underdogs, a role Toblin is comfortable playing.

“I prefer that role,” Toblin said. “Growing up at my house and always being the short guy and the not quite athletic, semi-intelligent guy, I relish in this role. They are a phenomenal football team that’s had a great year. Everyone in the state of Florida is looking forward to American Heritage versus (Miami) Central. And, you know, we’ll see if we can throw a wrench into those plans.”

In three previous final four games, Toblin’s Bolles teams have won twice. In 2019, Toblin’s first year at the school, the Bulldogs upset Cocoa 20-14 before losing to Miami Booker T. Washington in the championship game. The following year, the Bulldogs beat Gadsden County 10-7 in overtime before losing to Cardinal Gibbons in the championship game the following week. Last year, the Bulldogs fell to Cocoa 35-24.

“This year, as young as we were and the stuff that went through, I think it was it was neat to go out there each week and be like, ‘Hey, look, we have an opportunity to do something special,’” Toblin said.

Bolles advanced to the state semifinals by beating Episcopal in the first round of the playoffs, followed by a win over Orlando Bishop Moore and then surviving against Raines, 21-14 last week. All three of the Bulldogs’ playoff games have been at home. Friday’s game is on the road. It will be the first time Bolles has left Duval County for a game since Sept. 9 when they traveled to Glynn County in a 20-3 loss to Brunswick in the Border Classic. The team plans on making a stop at FAU for a pregame walkthru.

“I’ve been on a good amount of road trips, and we went up to South Walton. That was a pretty long trip,” said offensive lineman James Zebroski. “I think Well, I think we’ll handle it well. I think it’ll be a really cool, fun experience.”

American Heritage’s lone loss on the season came in a 42-34 defeat at undefeated Chaminade-Madonna, the top seed in 1M. Among the Patriots’ stars are two of the best players in the state. Wide receiver Brandon Inniss, who has committed to Ohio State, is listed as the 22nd-best prospect in the country by 247 Sports. He leads the Patriots with 58 catches for 1,107 yards and 13 touchdowns. Running back Mark Fletcher averages 134 yards per game and has scored 20 rushing touchdowns.

“I think it’ll just take us doing the same thing (as they did against Raines), just at a sharper level with no mistakes, no personal fouls, nothing like that,” said Bolles linebacker Jackson Brill. “Just really playing our hearts out.”

On defense, cornerback Damari Brown, a Miami commit, is ranked as the 42nd-best prospect in Florida. Teams rarely throw his way, but he still found a way to defend 15 passes with one interception this season. Compare them to Bolles’ top prospects, tight end Connor Cox (122nd in Florida) and offensive lineman Brendan Black (145th in Florida). During the playoffs, American Heritage has outscored its opponents 123-27.

There is some history between the two teams. Between 2008 and 2014 the Bulldogs and Patriots met seven times. Bolles won the first five meetings between the schools before American Heritage broke through with a resounding 60-21 win in Plantation in 2013. That was a team that included future NFL players Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie. It was the largest margin of defeat in Corky Rogers’ Bolles career. The following year, American Heritage topped Bolles 35-20. Those were good Bolles teams who both made the state finals. American Heritage was then in a higher classification than Bolles. With the reclassification, both are in class 2M.

Next to the field at Bolles there is a wall with signs shaped like footballs for each of the 11 state championships the school has won and smaller footballs for each of the eight state runner-up finishes. A win on Friday means another football on the wall.

“It’d be huge, you know, it’d be, it’d be a legacy-defining event for me,” Zebroski said. “And for the seniors around us, we’ve put a lot of blood sweat and tears into this team, and it would really pay off to see one of our footballs on that wall.”

The winner of Friday’s game will meet either Miami Central or Lakewood for the 2M Championship in Ft. Lauderdale on either Dec. 15, 16, or 17.

“We really don’t have anything to lose,” said Brill. “We’re nine and four, we’ve been through a lot of trials. And at this point, it’s like we weren’t even expected to get here. We have nothing to lose everything to gain.”