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December 14, 2013
Class 8A - Darters and Bucs have different styles
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
THE OUTLOOK They're back, and better than ever.
The Apopka Blue Darters (13-1) will get an opportunity to defend their Class 8A state title against Homestead South Dade, but things didn't look that way early in the season.
First they lost their star quarterback in the season opener. Zack Darlington, a Nebraska commit and the coach's son, suffered two concussions in a two-month span, including a devastating hit he took in a season-opening loss at Byrnes (S.C.) that ended his prep career. Then they lost their top running back in Week #2.
However, the Blue Darters didn't miss a beat. In fact, somehow Apopka managed to set a state regular-season record with 529 points.
"We had to totally reshape the way we played offense," said Apopka coach Rick Darlington. "It's tough to do this and even have the success with my son looking on from the sideline. It was hard for me."
Apopka has three players with over 1,000 yards rushing, helping the Blue Darters amass 5,819 yards on the ground.
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Senior Robert Thomas, the school's first-ever 2,000 yard rusher, leads the team with 2,307 yards and 30 touchdowns, but he had zero yards through the team's first six quarters. Junior J.J. Simmons is second with 1,113 yards rushing and 19 scores.
Last season, Apopka was able to outscore its opponent in the 8A title game (Cypress Bay), 53-50. This year's opponent will certainly benefit by trying to make it more of a defensive game.
South Dade, which was a district runner-up behind Miami Killian, is making its first appearance in the finals in school history.
Head coach Nate Hudson said the team was motivated this season.
"It left a bitter taste in our mouth the way we ended the season last year (loss to Killian in the regional semifinals), so for things to come full circle and the opportunity to play for a state championship, we know the work is not done yet, but it's a dream come true."
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Regardless of past history, Darlington expects a tough match-up.
"Coming out of the south they've got to be awfully good," he said.
Likewise, Hudson had high praise for his opponent.
"They are very well coached," he said. "They are very disciplined, the way they execute plays. We just have to be disciplined and try to get them out of their comfort zone."
The Buccaneers (27 ppg) average just over half of what the Blue Darters average in points per game (51.7), but their defense is only allowing 10.5 per game.
Four players have over 100 tackles, while senior Tyree Horton leads the team with 16 sacks.
But the Bucs are certainly capable on offense thanks to senior gunslinger Kahlil Render who has thrown 36 touchdown passes this season. His top four receivers average over 16.5 yards per catch.
"They've got a really good quarterback that can run and throw so that's always dangerous," said Darlington.
Despite the threat of the pass, it's been the rushing game that has been a "confidence builder" during the playoffs, according to Hudson.
"We practice (every day) against every conceivable front they can do," Darlington added. "We're going to be prepared for whatever they throw out there at us."
Apopka expects another big turnout after 8,009 fans attended the 8A final last year.
"Last year in the Citrus Bowl I was shocked because I've been going to championship games since 1989 and I've never seen a bigger crowd on one side," said Darlington.