From the start of their first-round playoff game at Bartram Trail on Nov. 11, the Flagler Palm Coast Bulldogs wanted to make a statement that they're not just happy to be there. They're in it to win it.
So, on a fourth-and-12 situation, punter Chase McGee faked a punt and ran for a first down. The drive ended with D.J. Murray’s 10-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead against the top-ranked team in Class 4S.
Murray, FPC’s junior quarterback, followed a Bulldogs’ defensive stop with another touchdown run — this one for 63 yards. And before the end of the first quarter, the visiting Bulldogs led Bartram Trail 14-0 in the Region 1-4S quarterfinal.
But that quarter would be the highlight of the night for FPC. Bartram Trail swiftly gained control and went on to score 50 consecutive points to roll to a 50-20 victory.
“That’s a good football team,” FPC coach Robert Paxia said. “They just don’t make any mistakes. We started really well. We had an opportunity to make the game 21-3. Unfortunately, we couldn’t capitalize. We dropped a pass. From that point, we couldn’t get out of our own way.”
The Bears (11-0) pulled to within 14-13 at the half. They opened the second half with a touchdown drive, forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and scored again. By the end of the third quarter, they led 37-14.
“To beat these elite programs in the state you have to be able to rally and overcome and not make those mistakes,” Paxia said. “Our youth showed at times.”
“Our kids are doing a great job academically and a great job with community outreach. Overall, with the culture we’re trying to build, I think we’re progressing.”
— ROBERT PAXIA, FPC football coach
On paper, FPC ended its season with a 4-7 record. But on the field, the Bulldogs were 7-4. They had to forfeit three wins after self-reporting an ineligible player.
While they retained their district championship with its automatic playoff berth, they were relegated to the eighth seed in the region and a road matchup with the No. 1-seeded Bears.
The district football title was just the fourth in FPC’s history. The season was challenging with injuries and weather postponements that forced the Bulldogs to play three games after just two or three days of rest. But Paxia was pleased with the progress his team made in his second season as the head coach of his alma mater.
“This year, we did something that’s only been done a few times in the history of our county,” he said. “You evaluate everything. Are you taking steps forward? I think we’re doing that, in a lot of aspects. The kids know what to expect. There’s a comfort level. We made a big jump on offense. There’s not as much whole teaching now, just specifics. And our kids are doing a great job academically and a great job with community outreach. Overall, with the culture we’re trying to build, I think we’re progressing.”
Two reasons for FPC’s improved comfort level with the offense was the growth of Murray and sophomore running back Marcus Mitchell.
Murray accounted for nearly 2,300 yards and 29 touchdowns passing and rushing, while Mitchell rushed for about 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“We’ll just focus on getting better,” Murray said after the Bartram Trail loss. He scored all three touchdowns against the Bears, including 20-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“We can’t really harp on all the losses. You just got to put it in the past and do what you can for the next season.”
— D.J. Murray, FPC quarterback
“We can’t really harp on all the losses,” he said. “You just got to put it in the past and do what you can for the next season.”
The Bulldogs will lose four starting offensive linemen in Joseph Wronowski, three-year starter Kobe Murphy and two-year starters Jake Blumengarten and Drew Droste.
They’ll also have to replace the leadership of Murphy on offense and linebacker Ashton Bracewell on defense. But they’ll return a number of key defensive players including four-star linebacker Rodney Hill, cornerback Ely Gilyard and sophomore defensive end Colby Cronk, who will be returning from a fractured femur he suffered Oct. 14 against Nease. Cronk led the Bulldogs with eight sacks in eight games.
“Colby Cronk is a game changer,” Paxia said. “To not have him in there (for the last three games), to me, I think he’s worth a touchdown. He’s really hard to block. Once they start letting him get in physical therapy, they’re going to have to slow him down. He’s going to work tirelessly to get back and be better.
“We return a very strong corps of players across the board,” Paxia added. “Our leadership is only going to improve from here. In that regard, we just have to continue to get better.”