Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Lynn Ramsey - Florida Catholic
Photography: LYNN RAMSEY | FC
TALLAHASSEE | Cardinal Gibbons’ state championship final matched the rest of the Chiefs’ 2020 season: A big foe knocked down the Chiefs, and they got back up. Because of that, Matt Dubuc’s team stands atop Class 4A in Florida.
Brody Palhegyi threw for 358 yards and four touchdowns, and the Gibbons defense solved the Kaden Frew mystery, to help the Chiefs defeat Bolles 35-21 in the FHSAA Class 4A Football Championship Game, played Dec. 17, 2020 in Tallahassee. The victory gave Gibbons its second state football title in school history.
Palhegyi completed 29 of 33 passes, connecting with nine different receivers. Clemson signee Troy Stellato led the way with six catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Kamari Moulton and Jesse Anderson also caught touchdown passes.
PALHEGYI SOFTENS THE BULLDOGS
Palhegyi said one key facet of Gibbons’ success against Bolles is that they let him hurt the Bulldogs with his running. He rewarded them with 66 yards on 12 carries. “We had a great game plan. Coach Dubuc trusted me to use my arm and my legs,” Palhegyi said. “You saw both of those today. The pieces fell into place and look what happens. It’s unbelievable. Fun. You couldn’t ask for any more.”
Alas, Bolles threw the first punch in the 4A title fight. On the second play from scrimmage, Frew broke through the middle of Gibbons’ line for a 60-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Palhegyi said. “We knew they were going to come out with the first hard punch. We were going to fight. We just fought hard today. That’s what matters.”
It took two possessions for the Chiefs to tie it. Palhegyi found Anderson for a 4-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. The Chiefs then forced a three-and-out and scored on the next drive. Palhegyi found Davon Kiser for 28 yards, and A.J. Jenkins for 40 yards to the Bolles 7 before Palhegyi hit Stellato for a 7-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 6:33. It should’ve been 21-7 at the half, but an illegal-block penalty stole a 56-yard Stellato touchdown reception. Bolles linebacker Michael Bumpus forced a Palhegyi fumble and Dj Johnson recovered to keep the Chiefs lead to 14-7 at the half.
THEN MOULTON PUTS THEM AWAY
In the second half, Kamari Moulton scored two touchdowns. He ignited the Chiefs, catching a screen pass from Palhegyi and racing 32 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead. Gibbons started solving Bolles’ run defense. Moulton’s 4-yard run with 4:52 left in the game made it 28-7 Gibbons.
“I just had to trust my offensive line,” Moulton said. “We’ve been doing this all year. They were good at times, but we kept running, and we did it better.”
Trayvon Brown, who had a team-high five tackles, picked off a Gunner Boree pass on the ensuing drive and returned it to the Bolles 47. Brown said he thought Boree was going to scramble, so he tried to match him. “I saw that one of the receivers was doing a post route, so I dropped back,” Brown said. “I was lucky enough to be there.”
Three plays later, Palhegyi hit Stellato on a slant for a 9-yard touchdown and a 35-7 lead with 2:25 left. Many of the Chiefs began to celebrate, and Dubuc started emptying the bench.
NOT WITHOUT A FIGHT
Bolles, which was trying to win its 12th title, still had fight left in it. Davis Ellis returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown, bringing the Bulldogs within 35-14 with 2:12 left. A blocked punt, a 33-yard Boree-to-Ellis pass and a Frew 1-yard touchdown run brought the Bulldogs within 35-21 with 47 seconds left, forcing the Gibbons starters to return. The Bulldogs then recovered the onside kick but committed two penalties which effectively ended the game.
Many of the Chiefs said last year’s regional final loss to Miami Booker T. Washington fueled them in the offseason. “We felt last year that we came up short,” Chiefs senior offensive lineman William Spicer said. “We had a bad day and made a couple mistakes that cost us in the end. I was just hungry the whole offseason just to get back out here. This should be our three-peat.”
FACING, OUTLASTING A WORLDWIDE FOE
But like the state final, the Chiefs’ title chances nearly succumbed to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Spring football stopped before it even started. Even summer offseason work did not happen in groups, because of CDC guidelines.
Dubuc said several facets of Gibbons’ offseason program were erased. “We’ve done a really good job in my tenure getting college coaches to recruit our players. We didn’t have that this year,” Dubuc said. “We lost the weight room. We throw the ball a lot, so we lost that. It was just a collective roadblock.”
He expected several players to return from last year’s team. However, he lost five players to transfers without getting anyone moving in. Add to that a rainy November that put Gibbons’ playing field under water twice, and the Chiefs learned how to improvise. Fort Lauderdale received 5.93 inches of rain on Nov. 8 thanks to Tropical Storm Eta. Those rains forced the Chiefs to go to city parks to practice.
He said the coaches pulled shifts for 36 straight hours putting gas in a pump to drain the field. “We have a beautiful facility, but there was so much water in south Florida that there was nowhere for it to go,” Dubuc said. “It was frustrating. Add to that the daily temperature checks, no locker rooms, and we’re really blessed to be in the position to go to Tallahassee.”
WINNING ANOTHER STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
While defending 8A champion Columbus and St. Brendan opted out of the state series, several other archdiocesan schools decided to play. Dubuc pushed the Chiefs to remain in the FHSAA state series, even though other parts of the state were starting before south Florida.
“There were so many meetings that were so negative about going back to school and playing sports,” Dubuc said. “Between the north and the south, it was like a civil war.”
Dubuc said at the end of the 2019-20 school year, he hosted a drive-by barbecue where he cooked 200 hamburgers. He then didn’t see the players in person until the end of the summer.
Stellato said the players prepared as if a football season would happen. He said athletes would schedule private workouts and doing mental work. “As soon as Coach Dubuc gave us a go-ahead, we just went in and ran,” Stellato said. “Our senior group really wanted to finish off this season with winning another state championship.”
Dubuc also said Jertavis Black and Spicer provided great senior leadership. Those two were among the 15 who played for the 2018 state-champion team.
The next challenge became building a schedule. Gibbons could get only four regular-season games before the playoffs. The Chiefs did not play until Oct. 9, beating Miami’s Monsignor Pace. Then 7A Doral and state champions St. Thomas Aquinas and Plantation American Heritage awaited.
“When you have a good team, we were calling all over the state, but we couldn’t travel more than 2-3 counties to get back the same night,” Dubuc said. “It all came back down to getting kids an opportunity to play.”
The Chiefs ousted the defending 7A champion Raiders 17-10. Dubuc said after the first two plays of that game, the Chiefs felt like they belonged on the same stage as the defending national champions.
The Chiefs then lost in a rainstorm to 5A champion Plantation American Heritage 23-17. That loss, however, propelled the Chiefs through the playoffs, clinching a state-final berth with a 45-15 rout of Cocoa on the road. “We played arguably our best game,” Dubuc said. “We converted everything. Our defense was staggering. Their quarterback had thrown for 8,000 yards in three years. He didn’t get much.”
Defensive lineman Jah-Mal Williams said the St. Thomas victory gave the Chiefs confidence they could reach the state finals. “But we lost right after that, so we had some humbling to do,” Williams said.
At a practice on championship week, Dubuc reminded the team of the Chiefs’ 2019 region final loss to Booker T. Washington. The Chiefs committed several errors – two missed field-goal attempts, getting stopped for a safety, an interception, a fumbled punt on the 50-yard line.
He reminded the players that if not for those mistakes, the Chiefs could’ve had a three-peat. “Our battle cry these last 7-8 days is to take care of the football and do what you’ve done all year. Just take care of the ball.”