Highlanders Advance to Final Four in State Football Title Hunt
Local Squad Defeated Zephyrhills to Win Regional Championship
Last updated 12/1/2022 at 9:47am
UPDATE: GAME TIME CHANGED TO 7:00 BY FSHAA See new story in NEWS section
The Lake Wales Highlanders captured the Regional Championship and advanced to the final four in the state Class 3S football playoffs Friday night with an exciting 26-9 victory over the Zephyrhills Bulldogs.
The undefeated Highlanders will host the semi-final game next Friday against Columbia, winners over Choctawhatchee Friday night.
Carlos Mitchell provided much of the excitement for Highlander fans with bursts of speed, including an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Corey Harris added runs of 54, 26, and 17 yards. Diyante Landrum added to the team's balanced attack.
A rare interception of a Trent Grotjan pass was later redeemed by a fake punt and a 33-yard pass to Corey Harris that brought the crowd to its feet.
A scoreless first quarter had many Highlander fans concerned, and the Bulldogs had threatened to take control early, reaching deep into Highlander territory on their first two drives, primarily on the strength of a strong running attack led by RB Rodney Smith and keepers by QB Brendyn Colella. That duo proved more effective against the Lake Wales defense than any previous attack this season.
The second Bulldogs drive was halted when Sean Major broke up a pass play, leaving them in a 4th and 12 situation, forcing a punt.
Johnquae Richardson, Terrence Edmonds, Josiah Marlow, and Terrell James were among Highlander defensive players making some big plays. Mauricio Alvarez was effective on conversion kicks, and put the ball through the uprights for a 34 yard field goal just before the half.
After recovering their own fumble, the Bulldogs found themselves in a 4th a seven situation, but quarterback Colella went for the TD, barely overthrowing the receiver in the corner of the end zone, and a sigh of relief passed through the home crowd.
The Highlanders began to hit their stride after regaining the ball as Harris took the very first snap for a 54 yard gain to the Zephyrhills 40.
Much of the offensive squad was in on the first score as Xavier Marlow then picked up 19 on a pass play, Grotjan ran a keeper for seven yards, followed by Harris grinding it to the 6-yard line.
Richardson pushed to the 2-yard-line and then punched it in on the next play. Major added a two-point conversion, and Lake Wales led 8-0.
A timely tackle by Richardson left the Bulldogs in a fourth down spot deep in Highlander territory on their next possession, and they settled for a 27 yard field goal.
Mitchell promptly returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to pay-dirt guarded by a phalanx of blockers. Majors added another two-point conversion, putting the Highlanders firmly in control of the scoreboard.
Colella added a couple of long keepers to spark Zephyrhills drives, and after finding himself in a fourth and three at the Lake Wales 6, he scrambled left before tossing a completion for the TD, making it a one-score game late in the half, but the Highlanders weren't done.
A fake punt on 4th and 18 saw Corey Harris pull down a 33-yard pass from Grotjan to the 17. With 2.9 seconds on the clock, Mauricio Alvarez put the football through the uprights for a 34 yard field goal, leaving the board at 19-9 at halftime.
The Highlanders wasted no time in adding to their total in the second half as Jeremiah Anglin picked up 25 yards on a short pass. Grotjan followed with a 14-yard keeper to the 18, Mitchell picked up 8 on a sweep to the 10 and Harris punched it in. Alvarez added the PAT.
That early third-quarter score stood for the rest of the game despite heroic and dramatic play on both sides of the ball. A Grotjan to Mitchell bomb to the 15 was ruled out of bounds by inches.
The Highlanders will be back in action Friday night at Legion Field as they continue to hold the home-field advantage. They will face the 9-3 Columbia Tigers, with kickoff time of 7:30, while Dunbar, a Ft. Meyers-area team, and Daytona Beach Mainland face off in the other semi-final game. Dunbar is also undefeated save for a loss in an exhibition game played in Valdosta, Georgia. They won a game against North Ft. Meyers by a single point two weeks ago to remain alive in the playoffs.