Edgewater's Bill Gierke is well into Decade No. 4 coaching football in Central Florida and came within one victory in 2009 of playing for a state championship in his backyard.
"We had a great season," Gierke said of the Eagles' run that ended in last week's Class 4A semifinal round. "And we lost to a great team."
That great team -- Niceville -- has some great players, which is why it's playing for the greatest prize in the greatest state for prep football this weekend.
And isn't it great they're here in Orlando?
Last week's FSHSAA Class 1A, 2A and 2B state title games brought a handful of hotshot collegiate prospects to town, but Friday and Saturday's doubleheaders at the Citrus Bowl offer a smorgasbord of Division I prospects.
Consider this a primer for all you recruitniks.
"They're all so good," said Gierke, whose school is doubling as host of the event. "I wish they could all win."
They can't, but some of the players can strike a blow for the individual futures amid championship stakes and under the watchful eyes of coaches from every state program and beyond.
Here's who to watch for:
Who: Pensacola (13-1) vs. Miami Belen Jesuit (11-3), Friday, 1 p.m.
The buzz: This is the closest thing to an undercard you'll get this weekend. The biggest name in this game is 6-foot-3, 190-pound DB Pablo Alvarez, who committed to Virginia over the summer. The firing of Al Groh apparently won't affect the status of Alvarez, who could end up playing receiver. Pensacola is led by a blue-collar defense that -- by itself -- has outscored opponents 20-6 in the playoffs. The top players are senior DT Jerome McClain (brother Anthony starts on USF's defensive line), who is expected to get increased offers in the coming weeks, and junior DE Cordivido Grice, who along with 75 tackles, eight sacks and three blocked kicks, is a candidate for next year's All-Name Team.
Who: Niceville (13-0) vs. Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer (13-1), Saturday, 1 p.m.
The buzz: Niceville running back Roy Finch, a consensus top-10 at his position, ended any drama with his recruitment last year when he committed to Oklahoma. Gierke and his troops got to know Eagles wide receiver Kody Williams very well last week, starting with a 70-yard touchdown strike on the fourth play of the game. Williams, who has Tennessee, North Carolina and Mississippi at the top of his list, later added a 20-yard TD catch. He may not find the long ball so easy against Dwyer and safety Matt Elam, one of the nation's top overall prospects who committed to Florida last year. Reports that Elam is wavering on that pledge come and go, but teammate and tight end Gerald Christian is solid for the Gators, and wideout Robert Clark is headed to West Virginia. At least three more Panthers -- defensive tackle Mike Fleurizard, defensive back Layton Holmes and wideout Mike Ruiz -- are expected to go Division I.
Who: Tampa Plant (13-1) vs. Bradenton Manatee (13-1), Friday, 7 p.m.
The buzz: This could be the best game of the weekend. Manatee, of course, shocked the nation by upsetting Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, the No. 1 team in the country by USA Today and winners of 37 straight, in the state semifinals.The Hurricanes came to Tampa in August and smashed Plant 49-33 in a preseason game, thanks to Brion Carnes, the USF-bound quarterback who threw for 304 yards, four touchdowns and ran for another score. The bulk of his passing yards went to mini-WR Tracy "Ace" Sanders, whose father played at FSU. Sanders has a bunch of offers, including visits to USF and South Carolina scheduled in January. Watch for junior RB Mike Blakely, too. He's got more than 1,300 rushing yards, 16 TDs and offers already from Iowa, Clemson and others. As for Plant, don't read too much into the aforementioned score of the first meeting against the Hurricanes. The reigning Class 4A champs were missing several starters, including junior QB Phillip Ely, who hasn't lost a start in two seasons, and were just getting to know RB/LB James Wilder Jr., who already has offers from UF, FSU, Miami, Tennessee and USC and might be a top-five junior in the nation. There will be lots of players bigger than WRs T.J. Glover and Allen Sampson, but none quicker, which is why Syracuse and USF are calling. Safety Eric Dungy -- yep, father is the coach, Tony -- and linebacker Mike Mirabella, both of whom missed the Manatee game, will play Division I next year.
Who: DeLand (13-1) vs. Miramar (13-1), Saturday, 7 p.m.
The buzz: Locals already know that athlete De'Ante Saunders and linebacker Trey Pettis, both juniors, have committed to UF and FSU, respectively. A pair of seniors, wide receiver Dramon Grady and safety Mark Joyce are spoken for, too; Grady to Memphis, Joyce to USF. Star running back Shontrelle Johnson committed to Northwestern earlier this year, but has reopened the recruiting process -- even asked his home announcer to quit calling him a future Wildcat -- after oodles of offers rolled in with his big season. Georgia, Kentucky and lots more figure in the picture. Miramar not only is led by the state's top-rated receiver in Ivan McCartney, but the kid also is Chad Ochocinco's cousin. And, yes, there is some flamboyant resemblance. The 6-3, 180-pound McCartney is debating Florida, Miami, UCF, Georgia, West Virginia, Oregon and lots more.
Home away from home
During his time as an assistant coach in Miami, Greg Schiano made substantial inroads on the Florida recruiting trails, the results rearing in a big way when Schiano became head coach at Rutgers. Like, for example, 29 Sunshine Staters on his '07 squad.
The '09 Scarlet Knights, armed with 11 players from Florida (including four starters), are prepping for Saturday night's date with UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field. This is an official contact period, meaning Schiano and his staff will use the evenings to beat the paths around the bay area.
"I fell in love with the passion these Florida kids have for football," he said.
Rutgers has a verbal from three-star RB Casey Turner, out of Jacksonville White, but has a legitimate shot at Tampa Leto's Jeremy Deering, one of the best "athlete" prospects in the state.
Florida State's 2010 class was ranked 38th by Rivals heading into November, but has jumped to 14th. Nabbing CB Lamarcus Joyner (Aquinas) and LB Jeff Luc (Port St. Lucie Treasure Coast), the state's top-rated players at their positions, will do that. …
DT Risean Broussard, a blue-chipper from Louisiana, has backed out of his Tennessee commitment in favor of prep school or junior college to improve his academic situation. …
Wednesday marked the start of the official signing period for junior college players, many of whom will join their teams for second semester and spring practice.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times