The big schools get their chance to shine

Four games Friday and Saturday will cap off another fantastic season of high school football in Florida this season. Here is a look at those contests, all of which will take place in Orlando at the Citrus Bowl:


Belen Jesuit Prep (Miami) (11-3) vs. Pensacola (13-1)

Friday, 1 p.m. TV: SUN Sports

Pensacola is led by sophomore quarterback Jalen Spencer, who has done a fantastic job navigating the Wildcats to their first state title game appearance since 1959. A strong defense has also pushed Pensacola on a state-championship march.

If the Wildcats are to win, they will have to take down a team that is also making history with a prolific run through the state playoffs. Belen Jesuit is an all-boys Catholic school located in the west part of Miami. The Wolverines run a Wing-T offense and will try to pound the ball against Pensacola. All in all, this should be a low-scoring battle in which defense will be the name of the game.

Senior two-way player Pablo Alvarez is committed to play football at the University of Virginia next fall. He is an impact player at both receiver and defensive back. Belen Jesuit has another rising star in junior tight end/linebacker Nick Menocal, who should end up receiving a number of offers over the course of the spring and summer. Also keep an eye on Pensacola sophomore defensive tackle Coleman Johnson.

This game is all about team play over individual talent or top college prospects – and at the end of the day, that’s what winning high school football should be all about. Wells’ Wish: Pensacola 13, Belen Jesuit 7.


Manatee (Bradenton) (13-1) vs. Plant (Tampa) (12-1)

Friday, 7 p.m. TV: SUN Sports

Manatee topped Plant 42-32 in the preseason game that did not count for either team. Ace Sanders lit up the Panthers with three touchdown receptions, and quarterback Brion Carnes threw for six scores on the night.

This is a much different Plant team than the one that went down to Bradenton early in the season. The defense is hitting on all cylinders. Quarterback Phillip Ely is finally healthy and playing great football over the second half of the season. Running back/defensive end James Wilder has been a force on both sides of the ball. There are also plenty of quick, shifty skill guys to help makes plays as well – T.J. Glover, Deandre Queen and Allen Sampson – for the Plant offense.

The big difference here is that Plant has been here before. It’s been a while since Joe Kinnan has led Manatee to a state championship – 16 years, to be exact. Manatee last played for all the marbles in 1993, when the Hurricanes lost to Miami Southridge, 69-36, in a game that set all sorts of FHSAA State Finals records for offense.

Plant is going for its third championship in four years and has a lot of key players back from the 2008 team which topped Lincoln to win the Class 4A state title.

The X-factor here could be Manatee running back Mike Blakely, who has rushed for over 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. The compact junior back (5-9, 190) is built like a bowling ball and runs like one, too. If he can get going on Friday night, it could spell trouble for Plant’s championship hopes.

In a season with all sorts of crazy upsets, it seems foolish to pick against Manatee, especially after the Hurricanes beat St. Thomas Aquinas last week to earn a berth in the state finals. However, at the end of the day, it’s hard to pick against a team that’s been there before. Wells’ wish: Plant 35, Manatee 21.


Niceville (13-0) vs. Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens) (13-1)

Saturday, 1 p.m. TV: FSN Florida

On paper, Dwyer has the more talented team. After watching at practice yesterday, I can tell you this is a focused team that would take the field today if it could.

However, there’s a reason they play the game, and Niceville has had a good run the past two seasons. Behind a vaunted rushing attack led by senior running back Roy Finch, the Eagles will come to Orlando ready to take on a team that has seemingly been anointed as the champion since the season began.

Matt Elam will be the focus of the Dwyer offense on Saturday out of the backfield. But keep an eye on wide receiver Robert Clark, who provides a home-run threat on the perimeter. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has an injured foot, needs to have a mistake-free performance. The junior quarterback has plenty of good players around him, including tight ends Nick O’Leary and Gerald Christian, and he simply needs to allow the offensive talent to take charge of the game and provide the scores needed to give Dwyer a championship.

I like the Panthers here but closer than the experts think. Wells’ wish: Dwyer 27, Niceville 14.


DeLand (13-1) vs. Miramar (13-1)

Saturday, 7 p.m. TV: SUN Sports

This figures to be a low-scoring game. Miramar has made the transition from high-flying aerial attack with quarterback Geno Smith and wide receiver Stedman Bailey last year to a defensive-minded team that wins games by grinding it out. Top wide receiver Ivan McCartney (who has an offer from Florida) does give the Patriots a home-run threat in the passing and return games.

DeLand gets things done offensively with a Wing-T offense that has the added bonus of a “Wildcat” wrinkle with talented junior back De’Ante “Pop” Saunders (who is already committed to Florida). Senior back Shontrelle Johnson is closing in on a 2,000-yard season on the ground as well and provides a great one-two punch alongside Sanders on offense.

Both teams are in uncharted territory here as neither has a previous championship game appearance.

In the end, with two evenly-matched defensive teams battling it out, the fact that DeLand is more of a threat on offense could be the deciding factor here. In any case, expect a hard-hitting, physical battle in which the defense that executes best will likely come out on top. Wells’ wish: DeLand 17, Miramar 13.