Bartram Trail holds on to advance to first football state title game
By Marty Pallman
The Bartram Trail (St. Johns) Bears had been here before, to the state semifinals. Three times in fact, with some crushing losses in this round.
The fourth time was the charm, as the Bears held on to beat Plant (Tampa), 34-29, in an FHSAA Class 7A state semifinal in northern St. Johns County Friday night, to advance to its first state championship game in school history.
Bartram Trail (11-3) will play Venice (13-1) on Saturday, December 9 at 3 p.m. in Camping World Stadium in Orlando for the 7A state championship. Venice knocked off three-time defending state champion St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale), 27-20, in the other 7A semifinal.
The Bears punted on their first possession, but the Bears defense forced the Panthers into a punt on their first drive, and Bartram Trail blocked the ensuing Plant punt and recovered on the Panthers 28.
On the very next play, senior quarterback and Auburn commit Joey Gatewood took a keeper into the end zone for a 7-0 Bartram Trail lead.
Bartram Trail’s defense then extended the lead to 14-0 later in the quarter as senior safety Timothy Adams jumped on a screen pass in the left flat and picked off Plant senior quarterback Jordan McCloud, returning the interception 40 yards for a score.
McCloud finally got Plant’s offense going on the next drive converting two fourth downs, including a 27 yard scoring pass to Alex Carvajal on 4th and 12 do pull the Panthers (12-2) within 14-7 at the end of the opening quarter.
Bartram Trail dominated the second quarter, and got back on the board with 9:33 to go before the half as Gatewood took another keeper 49 yards untouched to the end zone for a 21-7 Bears lead.
On their ensuing possession, senior quarterback Riley Smith got into the act for Bartram Trail, scampering 62 yards inside the 10 yard line. Smith finished off the drive with a 2 yard TD pass to Kevin Maurer, and the Bears led 28-7 and took that lead into the halftime locker room.
Plant looked like a different team in the second half, taking only 1:32 to get into the end zone after receiving the kickoff. Junior running back Walter Wilbon III scored from 26 yards out to cut the Panthers deficit to 28-13. Then came a key sequence for the second half.
Plant forced a Bartram Trail punt on the ensuing possession and took over on the Bears 35. The Panthers drove down to the 1-yard line and on third-and-goal were stopped short of the goal line. The Panthers were called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, and were moved back past the 15 yard line on fourth and goal. There McCloud fumbled as he was hit on fourth down, turning the ball back over to Bartram Trail.
The Bears drove down for a 26 yard field goal by Ethan Dudley, extending the Bartram Trail lead to 31-13 with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter.
Plant would not go away, scoring on the first play of the next drive on a 72 yard screen pass from McCloud to junior running back Leonard Parker to cut the deficit back to 31-21.
Bartram Trail came back with another long drive, and Dudley capped it off with his second field goal, from 23 yards out and the Bears were up 34-21 with only 3:38 left.
But once again the Panthers wouldn’t go away quietly. McCloud was sacked on two straight plays with a minute and a half to go to force a 3rd and 25 from the Bartram Trail 47, but then came back with a 40 yard bomb down the right sideline to Frank Murphy to keep the drive going.
Parker ran it in from 7 yards out and McCloud ran in the two-point conversion and Plant was as close as they had been all night, down only 34-29 with 55.2 seconds left.
But Bartram Trail recovered the ensuing onside kick, and ran out the clock to their first state championship game appearance for coach Darrell Sutherland, who has been the only head football coach in the program’s 18-year existence.
“It’s been a process,” Sutherland told the Florida Times-Union. “Our guys grow up coming to Bartram Trail football games. Our guys write letters to kids in middle school and encourage them. Some of these guys have letters that seniors wrote them 10 years ago. They know we’re what we are because of the guys who came before them.”
Junior running back Devin Ellison led Bartram Trail with 92 yards on 16 carries, while Smith added 77 yards on the ground and Gatewood 72 yards with the two scores.
The two Bears quarterbacks combined to only complete 9 of 16 passes for 81 yards with a TD and an interception.
McCloud had two touchdowns passing but also threw an interception and lost a fumble.
Parker had a TD receiving and rushing and Wilbon had the other TD on the ground for Plant, which has won four state titles and was 7A runner-up to St. Thomas Aquinas in 2016.
This was the second time in five years the Panthers lost in the state semifinal round.