The Matanzas youth movement started on Day 1.
The Pirates graduated 26 seniors from coach Matt Forrest’s first team last year, and they knew patience would be key as their younger players gained experience.
Flagler Palm Coast had more veterans entering coach Robert Paxia’s first season at his alma mater. But like their rivals to the north, the Bulldogs (4-4) improved as their younger players gained experience and were able to provide depth.
When the two teams line up for the annual Potato Bowl game Friday, Nov. 5 at Matanzas, each team will be led by seniors, such as receivers Noah Cundiff and Tate Winecoff for the Pirates, and running back Dakoda Wagner, linebacker Jason Browning and lineman Nick Blumengarten for the Bulldogs.
But a load of freshmen and sophomores also will be playing major roles in the season finale.
“We start a multitude of sophomores,” Paxia said.
Sophomore linebacker R.J. Hill is among the Bulldogs’ tackle leaders. Elyjah Gilyard leads the team in interceptions. Daniel DeFalco has started all season at tight end.
And in recent games, freshmen have been earning more and more playing time for FPC: Zyquan Neal at weak-side safety; running back Marcus Mitchell, who has rushed for 117 yards in three games as Wagner’s backup; and Colby Cronk and Tra’Vele Adams on the defensive line.
Cronk is expected to start at defensive end against the Pirates. The reason? Paxia points to a lone figure on the side field as most of the players walked to the locker room earlier this week.
“Everyday, he works after practice,” Paxia said.
“I just work on my hand movement, and what my coaches tell me to practice on,” Cronk said. “I definitely wanted to play with the elite, so I could get better. I got to learn a lot and experience a lot, playing against Seminole and Lake Mary (both ranked in the top 10 in the state in RPI). That’s my basis this year – just to learn.”
Evans improving with each game
The Pirates (3-6) started four freshmen last season, and they knew all four – Dakwon Evans, Jordan Mills, Cole Hash and Sho’Marion Gaines – would play major roles as sophomores this season.
“Last year, I was looked at as a rookie,” said Hash, a linebacker and receiver. “This year, a lot of guys are asking me questions and relying on me to do my job no matter what.”
Like FPC, Matanzas has played more freshmen as the season has progressed. But the player that has been most important to the team’s improvement has been Evans, who switched from slotback to quarterback before the season.
“We finished spring practice with Preston Roberts as our starting quarterback,” Forrest said. “But when he transferred back to FPC in July that opened the position back up.”
Evans shared the quarterback spot the first couple of games, then won the position outright after Week 2.
The sophomore has matured with each game, improving his completion percentage from under 50% to 72% for the season.
“His athletic ability speaks for itself,” Forrest said. “He can extend plays and get out of trouble. But now when the defense tests him, he throws the ball on time and is fundamentally sound. His shoulders are square to the target. His footwork is set. He’s almost perfect. He really has it all, and he's so coachable. He's a sponge. The last three or four games speak for themselves.”
Forrest said Evans, who has passed for 961 yards in eight games, is already getting noticed by college recruiters for his quarterback play.
They’ll have two more years to watch his progress.