PALM BAY, Fla. - Last Friday night there were several big semifinal playoff games taking place all over the state of Florida. But none of those games had the hype or national attention of the Palm Bay-Tallahassee Lincoln match up. ESPN2 even had a crew standing by in order to bring highlights of this significant game to their viewers all across the country.
Part of the reason why there was this much attention paid on this game was because of last year's game played in Tallahassee. Lincoln defeated Palm Bay in the state semifinal game and the Trojans then went on to capture the 4A state championship title over Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas. Another reason for the hype was the enormous amount of Division I talent displayed by both teams.
On a chilly winter night in Central Florida, where temperatures dropped into the low 40's, Palm Bay was ready to revenge last year lost. In the pregame warm-ups, the Pirates had the look of confidence while the Trojans appeared somewhat intimidated. Sparked by a stingy defense and an opportunist offense, the Pirates did indeed return the favor by knocking off defending Class 4A state champion and No. 1-ranked Tallahassee Lincoln, 44-21.
The story of the game was sloppy play by both squads.
The game was marked by several turnovers and costly penalties. Each team had five fumbles lost but it was Palm Bay that was able to take advantage of the mistakes.
Lincoln's Joe Bauserman was intercepted three times including a 59-yard return by Palm Bay's Eric Miller, a three-star cornerback recruit.
The Pirates scored the first 31 point of the game and looked totally control.
The defending 4-A champs, weren't ready to throw in the towel. By mid third quarter of the game, Lincoln closed the gap to 17 points and the Trojans appeared to be in a good position to score again because of a recover fumble on Palm Bay's 10-yard line. Palm Bay's defense tightened up and pushed Lincoln back. The Pirates took over on downs and they never looked back.
The Pirates (12-2) will meet the Tampa Jefferson in the Class 4A state championship game at 7 p.m. Thursday at Doak Campbell Stadium. This game had probably more D-I players on the field than any other playoff-game in the country.
Palm Bay fielded at least five legitimate senior prospects while Lincoln played four prospects that have scholarship offers. In addition to all of senior talent, there probably was at least a handful of underclass that will be playing college football in the next few years.
College coaches were from across the country, were well aware of the number of college prospects in Palm Bay Friday night. Rivals.com spotted numerous scouts roaming the sidelines, including coaches from Florida (shown at right), Miami, FIU, Central Florida, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
The best player of either team Friday night was Rival100 selection Reggie Nelson.
The 6-foot-0 and 175 wide receiver/defensive back stared on both sides of the ball. On offense he caught several nice passes including a nice 25-yard catch over the middle. On defense he was unstoppable.
The Rivlas100 fourth-rated safety plays much bigger than 6-foot and 175 pound frame. If he wasn't in the backfield hammering quarterbacks and running backs, then he was down field in tight coverage.
Nelson, who is considering Florida, Florida State, Miami and Louisiana State, has the speed, instincts, and hitting ability has the potential to be one of the best defensive backs in college.
The next best player on the field in Rivals100.com's opinion was Ryan Gilliam.
The 5-foot-10 and 172-pounder looked like the fastest player on either side. The two-way standout had several outstanding runs after the catch, including a 7-yard touchdown run pulling Lincoln within 17 points in the third quarter.
At the next level, he could very easily excel as a slot receiver. His slight frame might make it difficult for him to match up well against bigger and stronger receivers. Gilliam looks like he'll end up playing for the hometown Seminoles. However, he'll still look hard at some other schools.
He has visits set up for Illinois (12/13), Clemson, (1/10), Florida (1/17), Tennessee (1/24), and Florida State (1/31)
Joe Cohen, Rivals100.com No. 1 rated defensive end in the country, lined up on Friday at tailback, fullback and nose guard. He has the most potential of any prospect on the field. The 6-foot-2 and 240 pound freak of nature has been timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds.
But he had trouble hanging onto the football - fumbling two times. However, he still was able to make several nice runs in which it sometimes took four or five Trojans to bring him down. Cohen, who is a five-star prospect, has more of a straight ahead running style and his talent might be better suited on the defensive side of the ball. From his nose guard position, he had a nice stop on a running play up the middle and several quarterback pressures.
With some coaching and more intensity, he could end up being a big-time defensive end prospect in college. From talking with someone close to his recruiting situation, it looks like the Miami Hurricanes could be the team to beat for his services. Cohen is also considering Florida, Florida State and Louisiana State.
Last year, Antonio Cromartie was considered one the best juniors in the state of Florida and in the country. His senior year has been somewhat of a disappointment because of inconstant play. Friday night, he dropped several passes, including a touchdown pass that would have pulled Lincoln to 10 points of Palm Bay.
However, the 6-foot-3 and 200 pound speedster did flash his enormous potential by running a nice drag pattern over the middle and then picking up additional 20 yard to the outside.
At the next level, Cromartie to play either cornerback or safety. His childhood favorite Florida State and their cross-state rival Florida are in a dog-fight for his services.
His cousins, Robert Cromartie and Gavin Dickey, are currently on the Gator roster. One of the Florida coaches on hand at the game showed his interest in him by extending out his hand while Cromartie was coming onto the field from the locker room at halftime.
On the Lincoln sideline, future D-I players of note were running back Terry Arnold and linebacker Jeffery Williams.
Arnold had several nice runs and Williams had has some hard-hitting tackles from his linebacker position. The Palm Bay trio of Eric Miller, Thomas Miller and Ron Ellis confused the Lincoln passing attack all-night.
Eric Miller picked off a tipped ball and returned it 59-yards to set up a touchdown. Ellis had a hard hit over the middle on Lincoln's Ryan Gilliam.
Next year Palm Bay's wide receiver Xavier Carter will be getting a lot of recruiting attention because of his size and blazing speed. In two years, look for Lincoln's wide receiver Fred Rouse to be a big-time prospect. He's a Cromartie clone with good hands.