By Larry Blustein
TAMPA - Hallandale High head football coach Damian Jones and his team remember how the 2014 season ended, and as we are now just two weeks away from the start of the 2015 campaign, this is a football program that is as prepared as any team in school history to make a run at a first ever state title.
What happened since losing a 12 point lead to eventual 6A state champion Miami Central last November is focus and the belief that having more playmakers than perhaps any football team in south Florida, that school best 10-1 record can turn into something even better.
The pursuit of that lofty goal began right after the Chargers dropped a tough game to the Rockets - after knocking off traditional powerhouse Miami Northwestern in the first round of the playoffs. Last weekend, nearly nine months have passed and the work has never stopped, and by winning the prestigious University of South Florida 7-on-7 Sling & Shoot event, this program now has this coming season in clear focus.
"We came here to Tampa because we knew that this team would get tested," head coach Damian Jones said. "Not that this is going to determine whether we win a state title or not, but winning this event - with so many quality programs from Tampa and around the state on hand, gives this program a reason to be very optimistic."
The road to Orlando in December is really way off. Before that becomes a reality, this program will need to take care of business locally, and that means games against powerhouse St. Thomas and a number of other non district opponents will get them ready for one of the toughest districts in the state of Florida.
Due to an increase in enrollment over the past few years, Hallandale High has moved down from 6A to the 5A classification. In this case, smaller is not easier - and with two-time defending state champion Plantation American Heritage looming large - along with high powered Coconut Creek, Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons, Fort Lauderdale Stranahan and Miami Jackson - this is a district where bringing your "A" game every week will be essential.
For those who have followed Hallandale High's athletic history over the years, you know that basketball - boys and girls - truly had everyone's attention for many years, but things changed and the focus has been on football and the state championship track and field programs.
The very fact that under head coaches Bob Leibowitz, Prince Pearson and the late Bob Wood, the Chargers made the playoffs, but would rarely make it past the first round. Until last year, no program had demanded such respect, statewide, since the school opened its doors in the 1970s. That's why this year's program - with as many major college prospects as Hallandale has ever had - certainly believes it has the talent to make another serious run.
"This is a very good football program," Jones said. "Yes, we lost a number of quality young men from last year, but we have all worked hard to make the dream of winning a state title a reality."
In addition to winning last weekend's event, Hallandale took home the team title at the University of Georgia 7-on-7.
HALLANDALE IS SECOND AREA TEAM TO WIN
Since the inception of this 7-on-7, south Florida area teams showed up in huge numbers to take part – and as the case two years ago – Miami’s Westminster Christian won the team title. This year, it was the Chargers that beat a field that included many of Florida’s heavyweights.
The Chargers were upset in overtime in the first game of the tournament by Naples Gulf Coast, but over a two day period, won 12 straight, including beating Clearwater in the finals, 33-19.
Hallandale really made an impact at the event. Losing the first game in overtime, they went on to win four straight and finish that first day at 4-1.
Starting out the second day with two wins over Clearwater and Bradenton Manatee, the Chargers earned that No. 2 seed. After beating Loxahatchee Seminole Ridge in the first round of the playoffs, this team simply never looked back.
Among the prospects that coach Jones brought to USF included quarterback Tyler Huntley - easily one of the best group of receivers anywhere, led by Josh Hammond, Neru N’Shaka (Virgiia commit), Chris Cotto and Demari Simpkins, as well as Sam Huntley, Juwaun Hardy (2018) and Korrel Evans.
Running backs Jerome Lindo and Zack Moss (Miami commit).
Huntley, the all-time leading passer at Hallandale, has been in the spotlight since his freshman season, The FAU-bound standout leads this team on offense.
Cotto is one of the most versatile football players that you will find anywhere. He plays on offense, defense and is huge on special teams.
Hammond also made a major impact in the two days against top-flight competition.
“This offense is what we have been building toward,” Jones said. “The receivers, quarterback, running game. We have been really looking toward this coming year.”
Defensively, the Chargers came to Tampa with a solid prospects such as Jaylen Faulk, overlooked L.J. Sutherland, Raymond Crittenden, Mike Johnson, Tyrek Brown and Romelo Webster. Standout Deion Jackson didn't make the trip, but will be a key player for this program.
“We lost a few very talented players on defense from last season,” Jones pointed out. “Linebacker play and our defensive front will need to really make an impact for this unit to be successful.”
TEAMS COME FROM ALL OVER
In addition to the champion Hallandale Chargers and Parkland Douglas, other programs that attended included Seffner Armwood, Avon Park, Naples Barron Collier, Panama City Bay, Valrico Blomingdale, Bradenton Braden River, Brandon, Cape Coral, Tampa Carrollwood Day, Punta Gorda Charlotte, Clearwater Countryside, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs East Lake, Fort Myers, Naples Gulf Coast, Haines City, Lake Minneola, Daytona Beach Mainland, Bradenton Manatee, Merritt Island Christian, Tampa Middleton, Naples, New Smyrna Beach, Northport, North Fort Myers, Palm Beach Central, Pierce County, Ga., Tampa Plant, Tallahassee Rickards, Jacksonville Lee, Lantana Santaluces, Sarasota, Seminole, Loxahatchee Seminole Ridge, South Fort Myers, Bushnell South Sumter, Tampa Spoto, Dover Strawberry Crest, Tarpon Springs, Ocala Vanguard, Lakeland Victory Christian, Tampa Wharton, Wiregrass Ranch and the Clearwater squad they beat in the finals.