*** Suncoast News Game of the Week ***
*** Full coverage and photos after the game at www.SuncoastNews.com ***
East Lake's biggest challenge of the year comes to town Friday night.
The Eagles and Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer put their perfect 13-0 records on the line, along with a chance to go to Orlando for next week's Class 7A state championship game.
Although East Lake hasn't played anyone comparable to Dwyer's caliber of late, simply assuming the Eagles will enter Friday night's state semifinal overcome with anxiety and intimidation is a mistake.
East Lake's fully accustomed to facing top-tier programs. Players and coaches got a taste of a nationally regarded program in the preseason when they traveled to Bradenton Manatee for the Kickoff Classic in late August. Holdovers from last year certainly remember facing an excellent Orlando Dr. Phillips team in the Class 8A region finals. Two years ago, East Lake took eventual Class 8A state champ Plant High to overtime at the same postseason juncture.
Dwyer comes north to East Lake with a loaded roster and certainly seems deserving of the accolades it receives, i.e. being ranked No. 23 in the USA Today High School Sports Super 25 and No. 20 in the MaxPreps.com Xcellent 25 Writers Poll.
Of the 52 players the Panthers list on their roster, 34 of them are seniors and many of those are regarded as next-level talent. The leader of that pack is receiver-defensive back Johnnie Dixon (No.1), a four-star recruit and big-play speedster near the top of some guy named Saban's wish list, among others.
Following Dixon, though not far behind, are guys like S Shawn Boone (No. 4), WR Ezra Saffold (No. 2), WR-CB Clint Stephens (No. 3), DL Mark Kelly (No. 52) and OL-DL Daikwon Fuse (No. 50).
Probably not shocking anyone, East Lake's run of facing one-dimensional offenses has come to its end. Dwyer and junior pro-style quarterback Daniel Parr showed Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas what the Panthers' passing attack can do when star tailback Alonzo Smith (No. 21) has nowhere to run.
Parr threw for nearly 350 yards despite losing slot receiver Shawann Lurry (No. 5) in the first quarter, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's game recap.
Smith had rushed for more than 300 yards combined in the Panthers' first two wins of the postseason against Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson and Pompano Beach Blanche Ely.
Dwyer enters Friday looking just as impressive when it comes to keeping points off the board. The defense is surrendering less than eight points a night and the 28 put up by St. Thomas Aquinas is the most by a Panthers opponent since Delray Beach Atlantic posted the same number on Oct. 18 of last year. Only two teams prior to last week had gotten to double digits against a Dwyer defensive unit that features all of the aforementioned top recruits either sparingly or full time.
Many others — maybe most — look at this game as one between a heavy favorite and an underdog. East Lake should too, but from a motivational vantage point. The Eagles didn't get to 13-0 by accident. Dwyer beat up on five teams this regular season that finished with four wins or less. East Lake faced four such pushovers. What that shows is that while the Panthers have a couple impressive wins, it's not as though they've been mowing down state title contenders for 13 straight weeks.
The Eagles need to let Dwyer know early that this week is no downgrade following St. Thomas Aquinas.
East Lake coach Bob Hudson joked after last week's win that a college team was coming to town this Friday, and Dwyer certainly looks impressive. When the Panthers get off those buses following that four-hour cross-state ride, though, East Lake can show that south Florida is far from having the talent market cornered.