LAKELAND — It is Homecoming and Miami’s Dr. Krop is the sacrificial lamb du jour for the mighty Lakeland Dreadnaughts. Thirty minutes before game time the biggest question on the mind of the Lakeland student body is can Maurkice Pouncey pull the upset and win Homecoming King over his teammates, Chris Rainey and Jordan Hammond? Dr. Krop? Nobody’s worried about Dr. Krop.
Throughout the Lakeland student section, you see T-shirts that read “Gatornaughts.” They are fans of the six Lakeland players that have committed to the Florida Gators — Chris Rainey, Maurkice Pouncey, Michael Pouncey, Ahmad Black, Paul Wilson and Steve Wilks. There is also a fairly large group of students that have gone the body paint route. One girl in that group has everybody giggling. Against a neon orange body paint background that extends from her low slung black shorts to the bottom of her black sports bra, she has painted a rather skimpy black thong that extends high over her hips.
“Now that’s a serious Lakeland fan,” says Dave, who says he hasn’t missed a Lakeland game in years. “Winning makes you feel pretty bold, doesn’t it?”
Fifteen minutes to go and the teams leave the field. The Lakeland band marches onto the field and brings the crowd to its feet when it plays “Victory at Sea” followed by “Anchors Away.” That’s followed by the alma mater and the national anthem.
By the time the Dreadnaughts take the field, led by a fan driving a golf cart encased in a big black Lakeland Helmet with the giant orange L, the student section is ready for some football and even the alumni are on their feet, anticipating that Dr. Krop will become notch number 35 on the belt of the two-time defending state 5A champs, ranked number three in the nation in the USAToday poll. The poll is a source of irritation for Bruce Black, the retired Green Beret that is Ahmad Black’s dad.
“We won the national championship last year and we haven’t lost a game in three years so how can we be number three now?” questions Black.
* * *
Dr. Krop wins the toss and defers to the second half. Not exactly the brightest decision. Lakeland takes the kickoff and needs just three plays to make it 7-0 with 11:02 remaining in the first quarter. That’s a sign of things to come.
Steve Wilks is the first man down on the kickoff and he nearly breaks the ankles of the Dr. Krop kick returner with a kamikaze-like diving tackle. On Dr. Krop’s second play, John Brown breaks through the line and forces a bad pass. It’s the first of six quarterback hurries the 6-1, 295-pounder will have on the night. By the time he got to the quarterback, there was a string of bodies laying on the ground. All of them had tried to stop JB. None of them succeeded.
Brown expects double and triple teams. Asked how many times he’s gone against a solo blocker all season, the big guy laughs and says, “I can count them on one hand.”
Brown is one of the nation’s most highly coveted defensive linemen. Unlike his six buddies heading to Gainesville, or friends like Jamar Taylor (Lakeland running back, Alabama commit) or Jordan Hammond (Lakeland defensive end, LSU commit who is injured and unable to play this year), Brown still hasn’t made a commitment.
“Florida, Alabama, FSU and LSU are in it,” he says. “I’ve got friends at each of those places.”
Ahmad Black just grins when he hears that.
“He’s going to be a Gator,” says Ahmad Black. “His six best buddies are going to be Gators. He’s going where his buddies are going. Count on it.”
* * *
On Dr. Krop’s third play, Black breaks up a pass and almost comes up with an interception. Dr. Krop punts on third down and Black fields the ball on a high bounce, takes three steps upfield, makes two men miss and then cuts to his right. He gets hemmed in on the sideline after a 25-yard return. Lakeland’s drive takes less than two minutes. It’s 14-0 and the clock shows 8:06 left in the first quarter.
Wilks again is the first man down on kick coverage. This time the kick returner goes down as if he was shot by a gun. Wilks will finish the night with five tackles, three assists, one tackle for a 7-yard loss, and he’ll run an interception back 32 yards for a touchdown with 7:30 remaining in the half.
“Making plays is what it’s all about,” says Wilks, a 6-2, 195-pound safety that the Florida Gators are projecting to grow into outside linebacker size. “I just try to get better every game. I want to get another state championship and another national championship. I believe we’re going to win at least one national championship at Florida, too.”
* * *
Lakeland’s fourth touchdown drive is set up by a brilliant 52-yard punt return by Black, who is handling the return chores on this night because Chris Rainey is sitting out the game with a thigh bruise.
“We got a district game next week so I get to be bored tonight,” says Rainey. “I could play but Coach Castle thinks I need to let it rest. It’s probably going to help me later on because I’ll be more rested but I’m really bored now.”
One play after the punt return by Black, Paul Wilson stretches out and makes the kind of catch you don’t expect to see from a high school senior. Wilson runs a silky smooth route and blows by the defender. The ball is thrown high and short so Wilson has to slow down, allowing the coverage to catch up with him, but he concentrates on the ball, lays out and makes the catch, good for 35 yards. One play later, it’s 28-0 as Jamar Taylor gets his third touchdown of the night.
“You feel kinda bad for Paul,” says Michael Pouncey. “If we threw the ball a lot, he’d really put up some huge numbers but if we threw a lot, it would be more unfair than it is now.”
Rob Webster, the Pouncey Twins’ dad, says, “The games wouldn’t be nearly as close if we threw the ball a lot.”
Lakeland has had only one game this year — last week’s overtime win over nationally ranked St. Xavier in Cincinnati — that has been decided by fewer than four touchdowns.
Wilson doesn’t worry that he only gets to catch the ball one or two times a game.
“I’m here if they need me,” he says. “Meanwhile, I’m getting to work hard on my blocking and I think I’ll have a chance to get on the field at Florida quicker because I do know how to block. You have to block here or you don’t play.”
* * *
Black picks off his fourth pass of the season and that sets up the fifth Lakeland touchdown. He’s now within three interceptions of the Lakeland High career record. What Black does on the field is outstanding, but his greatest asset is leadership. Coach Bill Castle is the supreme leader of this Lakeland Dreadnaught team but Ahmad Black is his Prime Minister. When Ahmad speaks, teammates listen. When they see him working hard, they feel obligated to work hard.
Nobody outworks Ahmad Black.
“That’s how he’s been raised,” says Bruce Black. “There are things you can’t control. One thing you can control is how hard you work and he works harder than anybody on the football field or in the classroom.”
Ahmad will be joining the Pouncey Twins and Wilson as a January entry at the University of Florida. He turned in his paperwork to graduate Friday so all he has to do is show up at school and play football until December. He can’t wait to be a Gator, but first things first.
“I can’t wait to get to Gainesville, but we’ve got business to take care of here first,” he said. “It would be disappointing to go out without a third straight state championship so we’re all staying focused on that.”
* * *
It’s 42-0 and halftime is only seconds away. The Pouncey Twins are standing on the sideline cheering on the defense. They do this a lot. Lakeland has this habit of fast scoring drives, usually taking no more than five or six plays to march it down the field.
The Pounceys are the left side of Lakeland’s offensive line. They’re both 6-5, 290-plus pounds and they play with a nasty attitude. On this night, they will account for at least 20 pancake blocks between them.
“Just another day at the office,” says Maurkice with a grin.
“We may not get enough minutes to letter,” laughs Michael. “We aren’t going to play one play in the second half. We’ve only gotten to play the second half one time and that was against St. X last week.”
Maurkice says the coaches from FSU keep calling but the answer is always the same.
“I just tell them we’re committed to Florida and that’s not going to change,” says Maurkice. “We’re Gators. They’re wasting their time.”
Michael says they hear from several other schools and this week they got an unexpected call.
“FAMU called us this week,” he said. “It’s kind of nice that they think about us, but really … Division I-AA? I mean thanks for calling, but I don’t think so.”
* * *
At the half, Jamar Taylor will have 146 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He’s an Alabama commit and excited that he’s going to spend his next four years in Tuscaloosa.
“Roll Tide!” he says. “Look at the record — 12 national championships and 21 SEC championships. That says it all. I can’t wait to get up there so I can contribute.”
Taylor is often overshadowed by Rainey, the quicksilver tailback with the dazzling moves and effervescent personality, but on Homecoming 2006, the spotlight is on Taylor.
“We’re a better team when Chris and I are both in there together,” says Taylor, “but I’m glad I had a chance to show what I can do, too. I think we’re pretty hard to stop.”
* * *
At the half, Rainey is announced as Homecoming King. He spends the rest of the game on the sideline in uniform wearing the king’s crown. After the game, he will get hugs from a lot of girls, but he saves the biggest and best hug for his best girl.
“This is my grandma,” he says. “She’s my best girl. I’ll do anything for her.”
Grandma smiles and pulls Rainey closer. Her head rests on his shoulder.
“I’m gonna miss her next year when I’m in Gainesville,” he says. “Can you imagine what it’s going to be like with me on one side, Percy Harvin on the other and Tebow in the middle? Man, that’s going to be scary!”
Rainey always has the bubbly personality but they’re seeing a different side of him this year. He’s really working hard in the class and he’s taken on more of a leadership role with the team. He was the first of the “Gatornaughts” to commit to Florida and now he’s making it his goal to reel in John Brown.
“He says it’s Florida and Alabama his top two,” said Rainey. “Everyday we get on him that his friends are Gators and that’s what he should be, too. If you ask me, he’s coming with us.”
* * *
The second half clock never stops and the first team offense and defense for Lakeland never see the field again. The final score is 49-7 but really, it could have been dial-a-score if Bill Castle hadn’t called off the dogs. Castle has won five state titles at Lakeland. With Friday’s win, he’s 268-47 in his career at LHS, 155-12 since 1993.
Castle has had some great teams and great players at Lakeland, but it’s easy to tell that these guys are special.
“We’ve got some really hard working kids and they have a great desire to win and to improve all the time,” he says. “They’re really coachable and when you’ve got seniors that lead like these seniors do, it makes my job so much easier.”
With the “Gatornaughts” plus Hammond (LSU) and Taylor (Alabama), Castle has eight Division I commitments. On National signing day, he’ll get two more when Brown and defensive back Brian Valdez sign with Division I teams. Castle has sent plenty of players to Division I schools in his career at Lakeland but he’s never sent six to one school and he knows it could be seven.
“It says a lot for our program and what we’re trying to do here that a school like the University of Florida would come here and be interested in so many of our kids,” said Castle. “We haven’t had anyone sign with Florida from Lakeland High School since David Williams in 1993. We’re glad to have the Gators back here. We hope they will come back in the future and look at our kids.”
Castle says the Gators are getting six quality kids in the “Gatornaughts.”
“There’s a reason Florida wanted those kids,” says Castle. “They’re all exceptional kids and they’re great athletes. All six of those kids can play. I expect they’ll all do very well at Florida.”
* * *
Black has “Mama’s Boy” tattooed on his left bicep. After the game, the mama’s boy gets hugs from mama and two of his aunts. His girlfriend, who has a smile every bit as bright as Ahmad, waits for her hug. His mama gives him some money to take his girlfriend out for some wings. After thanking her and giving mama another hug and a kiss, Black says he’ll be in early.
“My little brother has a football game at 8 a.m.,” he says. “He’s going to be a linebacker and he’s going to be really good. He’ll carry on the Dreadnaught tradition. Around here, you grow up wanting to be a Lakeland Dreadnaught.”