There were a lot of potential distractions heading into the Mainland-Flagler Palm Coast football game: Mainland coach Travis Roland returning to the school where he coached the past four years; FPC coach Robert Paxia taking over at his alma mater.
Bulldogs linebacker Jason Browning Jr. decided to fix his attention on one thing.
“There were so many things going on,” Browning said. “I just mainly tried to focus on one. I was playing for Nehemiah Gilyard. He was supposed to be right next to me this game.”
Gilyard died in a single-car crash on Feb. 14. His No. 17 jersey was brought out to the field and placed on the bench at Sal Campanella Stadium. The Bulldogs went on to score 17 points in the first quarter and held on to defeat Mainland 17-13 in the delayed season opener on Sept. 3.
“We made the decision that he was going to play with us in the off-color jersey,” Paxia said. “Today you saw the gray jersey No. 17 come with us. It stayed on the bench with us.
“His younger brother (Elyjah Gilyard) wears 17. I felt like if somebody was going to get to wear that jersey I thought it should be his little brother. We’re going to carry (Nehemiah’s jersey) every week. It will be our off-color variant for each game.”
“We made the decision that he was going to play with us in the off-color jersey. Today you saw the gray jersey No. 17 come with us. It stayed on the bench with us.
ROBERT PAXIA, FPC football coach
Nehemiah Gilyard was a middle linebacker. Dedicating the game to their fallen teammate, the Bulldogs’ defense rose to the occasion. They recorded nine sacks and two interceptions and stopped a potential game-winning drive by the Bucs in the final minutes. Browning had four of the sacks.
“He was a very close childhood friend of mine,” Browning said of Nehemiah. “I grew up playing football with him. (Focusing on him) helped clear my head of all the complex, stupid things. I never tried to antagonize (Roland) or do any showboating in front of him, because that’s not what I was there to do."
Hard work pays off
FPC’s Ashton Bracewell had an interception, a couple of sacks and a key pass breakup on the Bucs’ final drive. He started the game at linebacker and moved to safety in the second half.
“We’ve had to use him in multiple positions,” FPC defensive coordinator Brian Cox said. “He’s played outside linebacker, safety. He played (defensive) end a little bit last year. He just comes in, works hard every single day. He wants to be a great player."
Roland appreciated Bracewell’s work ethic too. And, despite the loss, he was pleased to see his former player have an impactful game.
“Ashton’s one of the best kids, just personality-wise,” Roland said. “He’s a great person, works hard, lifts weights hard. He used to be really hard on himself, and I told him, ‘Ashton you’ve got a lot of time.’ He’s only a junior. He’s going to be a D-I player.”
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Bracewell wanted to have a big game in front of his former head coach.
“That was my mentor,” he said. “When I came in Coach Roland (put) me at DB. Being able to show him what I can do at safety too, that’s what he taught me, so I felt good about it.”
Lights out, part two
The stadium lights went out with 3:15 left in the game with Mainland in Bulldogs’ territory at third-and-nine. Roland remembered the same situation last year when FPC was hosting Madison County. In that game, the Bulldogs scored the winning touchdown after the lights came back on.
“We ended up winning the game on that last drive. I thought the same thing was going to happen again,” he said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t.”
But FPC running back Dakoda Wagner, who scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive and whose hard-nosed running helped the Bulldogs run out the clock at the end, had a different perspective.
“It’s the second time that’s happened to us, and we won both times,” he said. “As long as we keep winning, I don’t mind it happening.”
Paxia told his players after the game, “Winners find ways to win, and we found a way. But this cannot be our Super Bowl. We have nine more (games).”
The Bulldogs (1-0) host Atlantic (0-2) on Friday, Sept. 10, and then play three straight district games against Sanford Seminole, Spruce Creek and Oviedo.
But there was nothing like getting that first win at home.
“The community’s been very supportive since the very first day I got announced as the coach,” Paxia said. “The kids have been all in. They’re willing to grind. They want to do what it takes to be special.”
Roland, meanwhile, was pleased with the way his Bucs battled back.
“We fight,” he said. “We fought back and had opportunities. We’ve just got to capitalize on them. That’s a really good football team we played. I knew what kind of team I left. I left a really good football team. They run the ball well. They’ve got a really good scheme. If they can run the ball, they’re going to make some noise.”
Mainland hosts Spruce Creek on Sept. 10 and then opens district play on Sept. 17 against last year’s Class 6A state runner-up, Lake Minneola.
Seabreeze, Matanzas win
Jeremy West-Pirtle had four sacks and a safety in the opening quarter alone as Seabreeze (1-1) throttled Ocala Forest 43-8 on the road. The Sandcrabs host Orange City University on Thursday, Sept. 9.
Matanzas (1-1) got back on the winning track with decisive 36-8 victory over Atlantic at Daytona Stadium. The Pirates scored 29 points in the second half. Matanzas travels to Deltona on Sept. 10.