While Flagler Palm Coast’s offense appears to be a work in progress, the Bulldogs’ defense looks like it’s ready for the start of the 2023 high school football season.
Atlantic Coast scored both of its touchdowns off turnovers on the first two possessions of the game as the Stingrays defeated FPC 14-9 in three varsity quarters in a kickoff classic Aug. 18 at Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonville.
“I thought the defense played pretty well. They were pretty consistent all night. I thought we did an awesome job flying to the ball, playing good assignment football,” said Daniel Fish, FPC’s first-year coach.
Fish was especially impressed with the Bulldogs’ defensive line, led by ends Colby Cronk and Ethan Laupepa. Cronk had three sacks and was a constant presence in the Stingrays’ backfield.
He has a relentless motor. It doesn't matter if it's in the weight room, in the classroom. You can compete with him for anything and he's going to go as hard as he can."
— DANIEL FISH on junior defensive end Colby Cronk
“He has a relentless motor,” Fish said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in the weight room, in the classroom. You can compete with him for anything and he’s going to go as hard as he can. He’s going to try to give his team a competitive edge. He’s the epitome of everything you want as a football player, as a human being, as a leader on and off the field.”
Cronk and Laupepa teamed up on the play of the game for FPC. After a muffed third-quarter punt gave the Stingrays the ball on the Bulldogs’ 17-yard line, Cronk sacked Stingrays quarterback Sean Speed to force a fumble, and Laupepa picked the ball up and returned it all the way to FPC’s 45-yard line.
“I (saw) Colby Cronk coming from the other side,” Laupepa said. “And when (Cronk) hit him, I knew that ball was coming loose, and all I could think about is picking that ball up and just running as far as I could.”
FPC’s potential go-ahead drive ended with an Atlantic Coast interception — the Bulldogs’ fifth turnover of the game. But that play will surely capture the attention of Live Oak Suwannee, FPC’s Week 1 opponent.
“(Laupepa’s) not scared of the big moment,” Fish said of the senior. “That’s a kid that’s going to make plays all year long for us, put pressure on the quarterback, and when the ball’s on the ground or in the air, he’s going to go after it and he’s going to be as aggressive as he can.”
On the flip side, FPC headed into its first game week without a clear-cut starter at quarterback.
Running back Marcus Mitchell, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, was not on the sideline. He should be ready to play this week, Fish said on Aug. 21.
Two of FPC’s five turnovers came on special teams, including a mishandled snap on a second-quarter field goal attempt. And the news on the defensive side of the football wasn’t all good. Safety Carson Kato left the game with a knee injury in the first quarter. He was scheduled to see an orthopedic surgeon on Monday, Aug. 21, Fish said.
“We’ll hear more then, but that’s a tough loss for us,” Fish said. “He’s our best tackler on the back end there at (defensive back), where we don’t really have a lot of depth; we’re young. He’s also our long snapper, and sometimes he punts for us.”
The game didn’t start out well for the Bulldogs as they found themselves trailing 14-0 after their first two possessions ended with turnovers deep in their own territory. Quarterback Caden Gonzales slipped on the first play from scrimmage as he was releasing a pass and the ball was intercepted and returned for a 13-yard touchdown.
On their second possession, the Bulldogs fumbled on their 24, and Atlantic Coast scored six plays later. FPC got on the scoreboard with 4:13 left in the first quarter as Jai’Quan Grimes scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. The Bulldogs closed the gap to 14-9 with a second-quarter safety as Atlantic Coast QB Speed was called for a grounding penalty in his own end zone.
Sophomore quarterbacks Cole Walker and La’Darius Simmons were both able to move the offense, but neither of them separated themselves from the pack.
“I thought La’Darius came in and led a pretty good drive. Cole led a couple of pretty good drives, but we just couldn’t finish. So we got to work on finishing,” Fish said. “I still believe it’s a three-man battle. Obviously, you don’t want it to be three going into the first game. Hopefully, someone will jump ahead and solidify (the starting spot) and earn the respect of the team.”
FPC will travel to Suwannee for the opener, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25.