TAMPA — Two seasons ago, Jefferson wasn’t a popular place to be.
The Dragons were used to winning, and despite a playoff berth, a 4-6 season led to an exodus. Six players, including some top playmakers, transferred to greener pastures at Chamberlain to chase what they believed were more legitimate state title dreams and better college exposure.
The season had been emotional as much as it was frustrating, as the team was still reeling from the shooting death of linebacker C.J. Mills.
“People thought we were down,” coach Mike Fenton said. “We knew we weren’t. I really felt back then that if we stayed the course and stayed together there were going to be some lumps, but we’d get there.”
The next season, a sophomore class of 15-year-olds was thrown into the fire to face the likes of Armwood, Hillsborough, Plant and a Chamberlain squad full of former mates. Now, most of them juniors, the Dragons sit two wins from a state championship.
Their journey to Pensacola on Friday — a 470-mile drive to the Panhandle’s western-most tip — for the Class 3A state semifinals is a long trip, but this Dragons squad’s road to redemption has been a lengthier journey.
“All of this started for us last year,” quarterback Quentin Williams said. “We went through some ups and downs during our sophomore years, but it was a great learning experience. We didn’t use the excuse that we were young. Our coaches wouldn’t let us.”
The Dragons (11-1) boast the county’s top passing game. They are coming off a ground-game effort that included five rushing touchdowns in a four-touchdown win at North Marion. And Fenton said Jefferson’s defense is playing its best since he has been at the school (1999).
“Some people who felt this coaching staff wasn’t what it was supposed to be, they left,” junior two-way lineman Manny Cromuel said. “Those guys who left didn’t feel this was where it was at. To me, these coaches are what make us."
On Monday, the Jefferson special-teamers ran gassers well into the dark. A lackluster practice for that unit didn’t satisfy the coaches, so they had to pay.
“It’s like marriage,” Cromuel said. “You’ve got your ups and you’ve got your downs.”
Two of last year’s defectors landed D-I scholarships — receivers Anthony Williams (Troy) and Ed Williams (Toledo). But their replacements, juniors Andre Davis and Chris Moore, figure to be the county’s most highly recruited senior pair next year. Davis owns offers from Miami and Florida State, and Moore has also received interest from the ’Noles.
This marriage between a sometimes gruff staff and a young team has blossomed. And in the process, the youthful exuberance has rubbed off on the coaches. They took their lumps last season: a last-second loss to Hillsborough, a 41-0 thumping from Armwood, three-touchdown losses to Plant and Chamberlain.
After this season’s opening win over Hillsborough, coaches broke down every mistake, making sure the Dragons became neither complacent nor big-headed.
“We know Saturday morning at 9 o’clock we’re gonna get it,” Williams said. “Every game we get the business. It gets tense, but now we know what it’s about. They’re making us better.”
Now, the payoff.
“It’s made it fun again,” said Fenton, who was part of Jefferson teams that advanced to the state final in 2002 and ’04.
“Was it challenging at first? Yeah. And it kind of lit a little fire in me. I like to win. It got my competitive juices flowing a bit, as our entire staff. We were used to that winning way around here. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work.”
Photo: Manny Cromuel, right, goes for the sack of Hillsborough's Tarean Austin in the season opener.