LAKELAND—Take away the cannons, the turf field, the Jumbotron, the music, the golf-cart-turned-football helmet and the fans, and all you have at Lakeland is a bunch of high school-aged guys playing football.
And they were doing just that Thursday afternoon, many in just shorts, socks, shoes and helmets, on a practice field next to the school.
This isn’t your typical Lakeland football team. Gone are the Pouncey twins, Chris Rainey and the other five Dreadnaughts who signed with Florida in 2007 after winning a second-straight national championship. In their places are players like 5-foot-9, 150-pound running back Taylor Placides and quarterback Raheeme Dumas, who was forced to slide under center from his cornerback position only a few days before the regular season commenced when the FHSAA declared three transfer players ineligible.
The Dreadnaughts, though, are still 12-0 and looking to advance to the state semifinal for the third consecutive year. Standing in their path is not Plant, the team that eliminated them the past two seasons, but Gaither (9-3), who they host Friday night.
“Tampa football has really come up strong over there the last four or five years,” said longtime head coach Bill Castle. “(Gaither) is a good-coached football team, they show you a lot of different looks on defense, and they’ve had a great year themselves.”
Due to the early ineligibility ruling and a host of injuries, the Dreadnaughts have relied on an unlikely cast of characters, including a few junior varsity players, to step up and fill holes. The defense has been top-notch all year, limiting opponents (three of which had winning records) to an average of about 185 yards of total offense and 11 points per game.
“We’ve had great chemistry all year,” Castle said. “They’ve all been accountable to one another. It’s been a fun year coaching. That’s the one thing about football, it’s a team sport. If you get everyone clicking on the same page, that’s powerful.”
And the Dreadnaughts still have the notorious Bryant Stadium, long-revered as one of the toughest places to play. Gaither head coach Jason Stokes has emphasized to his team this week that they should be excited to play in such a charged atmosphere and only worry about beating the 2011 Dreadnaughts, not the Jumbotron or ghosts of Lakeland teams past. Like those national championship teams, though, this Lakeland squad cherishes its homefield advantage.
“I love playing at home because, I don’t want to say it makes our opponents afraid of us—I think it does, but they act like it doesn’t, that they’re just fine or whatever,” said Dumas, a senior. “I mean, if they (Gaither) want to come play us, they can come play us.”