By Marty Pallman
The FHSAA Class 1A state championship game has been a boon for smaller rural schools in the Panhandle and North Central Florida. This year’s game at the Citrus Bowl will feature one team which hasn’t been to this point in almost 40 years against a team with more recent success.
Hamilton County (11-3) is the North Central Florida representative after winning on the road at defending 1A state champion Trenton, 45-20, in the regional final before winning at previously unbeaten and top-ranked Dixie County, 18-12, in last week’s state semifinals. The Trojans are in the state championship for the first time since 1975, when Hamilton County lost to Palmetto, 13-11, in the 2A state championship game.
Blair Armstrong is in his second year as Hamilton County’s head coach. He is very happy about the Trojans’ run to Orlando, as it came against the best teams in Florida in 1A.
“Last week, we beat a Dixie County team that beat us during the season,” Armstrong said. “It was a very defensive game, but we got the win and we are excited and proud to be playing in Orlando on Friday night.”
Hamilton County finished 1-9 in 2012, the year before Armstrong arrived. In his first season, the Trojans were district champs and advanced to the regional final, losing to eventual state champion Trenton, 59-32. Armstrong says there’s a good group of upperclassmen that have brought this program back.
“We (Hamilton County) have a good group of seniors and juniors that have really bought in,” Armstrong said. “There is only so much we as coaches can do, but this group of players has really stepped up and made our job very easy.”
Hamilton County is led by senior Lamarcus Webb, a two-way athlete who has 1,310 all purpose yards and 17 touchdowns while adding 34 tackles and three interceptions on defense. Webb also returned an interception 90 yards for a TD to put the game against Dixie County out of reach.
Junior quarterback Kentwan Daniels has rolled up 1,820 total yards and 21 TD’s. Senior Ethan Land leads the Trojans defense with 106 tackles, including 26 for loss, and Deangelo Robinson added 95 tackles while leading Hamilton County with 13 sacks. Armstrong knows his defense faces a tough challenge in Port St. Joe, led by their running back Jarkeice Davis, who has rushed for 2,014 yards and 34 touchdowns.
“They (Port St. Joe) have one running back who has rushed for over 2,000 yards, and a couple of others who aren’t too shabby,” Armstrong added. “I played them when I was in high school (at Jefferson County) and they have a great tradition and always play tough.”
Port St. Joe (11-2) is familiar with state football titles, winning three championships in 2005, 1984, and 1971. The Tiger Sharks defeated Fort Meade 38-31 nine years ago to win the 1A state title under current coach John Palmer, defeating Fort Meade 38-31. Palmer returned this year to Port St. Joe after some time away and is happy for the entire community.
“The atmosphere is euphoric right now,” Palmer said. “There are plenty of people who are happy and proud and it’s just a great time up here in Port St. Joe this week.”
Port St. Joe advanced to Orlando after winning road games at South Walton and last year’s 1A state runner-up Blountstown, before returning home to blank Vernon 35-0 in last week’s state semifinal game.
In the win over Vernon, Davis and Cole Cryderman both ran for two touchdowns and combined for 198 yards on the ground and the Sharks’ defense was dominant in posting the shutout. Palmer credits Port St. Joe’s trip to the state championship game in his first year back to the previous coaching staff.
“You have to give credit to the previous staff before I came back for having these players ready,”Palmer said. “We haven’t had any problems with getting these kids ready to go or having them buy into our system.”
It’s not much of a secret that Port St. Joe is going to run the ball. The Tiger Sharks have rushed for over 3,700 yards on 521 carries with 48 touchdowns and have three running backs over 499 yards rushing, led by Davis. Port St. Joe quarterback TJ Williams has completed only 31 passes all season, but 10 of those are for touchdowns.
Palmer says this Port St. Joe team has some differences and similarities to his 2005 state championship squad.
“We run a very similar offense and do a lot of things similar to that team,” Palmer said. “But while we aren’t as big on the offensive line now as we were in 2005, we are quicker off the ball now.”
Cryderman is a threat in all three phases for Port St. Joe, leading the defense with 105 tackles and is also 5 for 7 on field goals and 36-for-46 on extra points. Alvin Dempsey leads the Port St. Joe defense with six QB sacks.
The 1A State Championship Game from the Citrus Bowl in Orlando between Hamilton County and Port St. Joe kicks off Friday night at 7:07 p.m.
More state championship game info here.