ORLANDO — It was a sight that only fans of the Orange and Blue could appreciate as there were Gator chomps all around as the Dwyer Panthers celebrated their 42-14 win over Niceville for the Class 4A state championship at the Citrus Bowl. Led by Florida commitments Matt Elam, Gerald Christian and Robert Clark, Dwyer captured the first state football championship in school history, quite a sendoff for three team leaders who will enroll at UF in January.
Dwyer’s domination of Niceville began with Matt Elam, #22 who ran like another famous Florida #22, Emmitt Smith. A US Army All-American, Elam is projected to play safety at the collegiate level but he looked a lot like Emmitt the way he ran over, under, around and through the NIceville defense for three touchdowns, carrying the ball 14 times for 187 yards.
Elam’s signature play was a 69-yard touchdown run in which he wasn’t even touched with 10:17 remaining in the first half.
“He’s a phenomenal kid, always been the best at whatever he does,” Dwyer head coach Jack Daniels said. “Without a doubt, he is the best player I’ve seen at the high school level.”
For Daniels, the state championship helped put to rest memories of a 77-14 loss to Venice in the 2000 state championship game. Daniels, a University of Florida grad, is in his 14th season as Dwyer’s head coach.
While Dwyer was making a statement has as the best team in the state, several Panthers let it be known they will be heard from in the future. Tight end Nick O’Leary displayed his versatility as he caught five passes for 106 yards, had a sack on defense and made a number of plays in the special teams phases of the game. The most notable would be a brilliant play in the end zone when he avoided getting his punt blocked, faked a pass and ran 46 yards down the sideline for a first down. Although the play was negated by a penalty, it was still a spectacular move by the star junior and a play that showed O’Leary’s quick thinking and athleticism all in the course of a few seconds.
“I just took it around the outside, faked like I was going to throw it, got around a guy and kept going,” O’Leary said after the game.
While the offense made plays from start to finish, the Panthers’ defense that put on a tremendous display. on Saturday as well. Defensive back Mike Ruiz (11 tackles, forced fumble), defensive lineman Ken Shaw (nine tackles, forced fumble) and Keith Bowers (Nine tackles, two tackles for loss) made their presence known while Christian, who will play tight end at Florida got in on the action as well. Christian tied a game-high with 11 tackles (nine solo), one sack and a pass break-up.
“We had to step it up,” Christian said of the defensive effort. “We knew they had a couple of good players but it’s a state championship game. We had to leave it all out on the field.”
Even the newest Gator of the bunch for Dwyer — multi-purpose threat Robert Clark — had a big-time performance. Despite giving up an early touchdown, Clark rebounded to notch 191 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns, and an interception to boot.
“[Niceville wide receiver Kody Williams] got me down in the end zone,” Clark noted of the second-quarter touchdown he gave up in coverage. “I had to get him back.”
Clark exacted revenge later in the game with an 88-yard kickoff return on the last play of the game. When he took the final strides into the end zone, a celebration broke out on the Dwyer sideline. Teammates streamed to the end zone and met him with helmets flying in the air to signal a state championship victory.
The win capped off an incredible year for Dwyer, which had to live with the memory of a state semi-finals loss to Tampa Plant a year ago.
“It was a crushing loss [against Plant],” Daniels said of the 33-21 defeat last December. “We used that as motivation all throughout the preseason workouts. That was a hard one to forget.”
But in the end, the mission was finished. Some Dwyer parents can even cross off an item on the wish-list for many members of the Panthers football team.
“That’s all I wanted for Christmas,” O’Leary said. “We did what we had to do.”
As did the Gators, who managed to land three of the best players in the country from one school, players who will come to Gainesville with the fresh feel of a championship pedigree.
CLASS 4A CHAMPIONSHIP
DWYER (PALM BEACH GARDENS) 42, NICEVILLE 14
Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 at Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando
Score by quarters 1 2 3 4—Final
Niceville 0 7 0 7—14
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 6 24 0 12—42
DWY—Matt Elam 6 run (Nick O’Leary pass failed) at 9:58. Drive: 7 plays, 80 yards, 4 first downs, 2:02 time elapsed following opening kickoff. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 6, Niceville 0.
NICE—Kody Williams 29 pass from Kyle McDorman (Tanner Hansen kick good) at 10:34. Drive: 9 plays, 62 yards, 4 first downs, 1:54 time elapsed after punt. Score: Niceville 7, Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 6.
DWY—Elam 69 run (Mike Ruiz pass from Jacoby Brissett good) at 10:17. Drive: 1 play, 69 yards, 1 first down, 0:10 following kickoff. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 14, Niceville 7.
DWY—Elam 26 run (Bobby Puyol kick failed) at 7:16. Drive: 2 plays, 54 yards, 2 first downs, 0:14 time elapsed following fumble caused by Mike Ruiz that was recovered by Layton Haynes at the Dwyer 46. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 20, Niceville 7.
DWY—Robert Clark 11 run (Puyol kick good) at 2:28. Drive: 5 plays, 67 yards, 3 first downs, 1:33 time elapsed following Niceville turning the ball over on downs. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 27, Niceville 7.
DWY—FG Puyol 23 good at 0:05. Drive: 7 plays, 56 yards, 2 first downs, 0:58 time elapsed following Niceville turning the ball over on downs. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 30, Niceville 7.
DWY—Clark 34 pass from Jacoby Brissett (Puyol kick blocked) at 11:23. Drive: 1 play, 34 yards, 1 first down, 0:07 time elapsed following Clark’s interception and 31-yard return. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 36, Niceville 7.
NICE—Roy Finch 1 run (Hansen kick good) at 0:17. Drive: 8 plays, 69 yards, 4 first downs, 3:33 time elapsed following punt. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 36, Niceville 14.
DWY—Clark 88 kickoff return at 0:00. Drive: 0 plays, 0 yards, 0 first downs, 0:17 time elapsed after kickoff. Score: Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 42, Niceville 14.
Kickoff: 1:07 p.m. End of game: 4:02 p.m. Elapsed time: 2:55.
Weather: Sunny, 59 degrees, winds from W at 17 miles per hour.
Officials: Edward Bates, referee; Mike Couch, umpire; Cliff Struhar; Jada Herbert, line judge; John Taylor, back judge; John Krentzman, field judge; Phillip Kelly, side judge; Matt Repchak, scorer.
Records: Niceville 13-1, Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) 14-1.
FIRST DOWNS 27 14
RUSHES-YARDAGE 60-235 21-199
PASSING YARDAGE 127 193
Passes (C-A-I) 11-29-1 10-20-0
TOTAL OFFENSE 89-362 41-392
Return yardage 0 40
Fumbles-lost 1-1 0-0
Punts-average 2-36 5-38
Penalties-yards 2-10 14-103
Time of possession 32:57 15:03
Third-down conversions 7-17 2-8
Fourth-down conversions 2-7 0-0
Red-zone offense 1-2 3-3
Sacks by: 2-15 4-42
RUSHING: Niceville, Roy Finch 33-148, Spencer Pullen 12-68, G. Fletcher 6-41, Kody Williams 3-8, Kyle McDorman 6-minus 30.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Matt Elam 14-187, Robert Clark 2-13, Jonah Frederick 1-3, Jacoby Brissett 4-minus 4.
PASSING: Niceville, Kyle McDorman 9-27-1, 100 yards, 1 touchdown; C. Scroggins 2-2-0, 27 yards, 0 touchdowns.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Jacoby Brissett 10-20-0, 193 yards, 1 touchdown.
RECEIVING: Niceville, Kody Williams 4-52, Aaron Moore 3-36, Roy Finch 3-27, Stefano Schutte 1-12.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Nick O’Leary 5-106, Robert Clark 4-59, Matt Elam 1-28.
PUNTING: Niceville, Hayden Meyer 2-72, 36.0 average.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Nick O’Leary 5-192, 38.4 average.
TACKLES (UA-A): Niceville, Anthony Miles 5-1, Michael White 4-3, S. Schutte 3-1, Hayden Meyer 3-1.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Gerald Christian 9-2, Mike Ruiz 8-3, Keith Bowers 4-5, Ken Shaw 4-5, Layton Haynes 4-3, Robert Clark 4-1, Mike Fleurizard 3-2.
TACKLES FOR LOSS: Niceville, S. Schutte 1.0-10 (sack), P. Willingham 1.0-5 (sack), Michael White 1.0-1, Anthony Miles 0.5-1, Timothy Peregoy 0.5-1.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Layton Haynes 3.0-13 (sack 1.0-10), Darrell Hunter 2.5-6, Keith Bowers 2.0-5, Gerald Christian 1.0-11 (sack), Nick O’Leary 1.0-11 (sack), Ken Shaw 1.0-10 (sack), Leroy Kelson 1.0-5, Mike Fleurizard 0.5-2.
INTERCEPTIONS: Niceville, none.
Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens), Robert Clark 1-31.