STARKE, Fla. – The Bradford Tornadoes were playing in the first state semifinal game since 2017 and looking for their first appearance in a state championship game since 1985.
On the opposite side of the field coming in from three hours away from the other side of the state was the Cocoa Tigers who were in their unprecedented 16th straight semifinal appearance.
In the end, though, it was small-town football coming together on the field for the right for one team to go off to the Class 2S state championship game while the other would see their season sadly come to a close.
And both Bradford (12-2) and Cocoa (10-3) left a thriller and everything they had on the field with the visiting Tigers pulling out a 31-21 victory over the host Tornadoes at David Hurse Stadium this past Friday night in Starke.
TIGERS STRIKE FIRST, BUT TORNADOES DON’T BEND IN THE FIRST HALF
The Tigers struck first quickly in the game taking less than five minutes off the clock when senior star quarterback Blake Boda drove the Tigers down the field hitting Jayvan Boggs from 25 yards out to take a 7-0 lead.
Bradford would see its initial series of the game go nowhere as the Tigers defense kept standing up to the rotation between Dae’jon Shanks and Jeremiah McKenzie at quarterback.
With the ball back in the hands of Boda and company, Boda was quick to find his favorite target of the game with Boggs hauling in a 47-yard pass play on second down to get the Tigers in line at the Bradford 22. Just a few plays later with 1:13 left in the first quarter Cocoa would take a 14-0 lead on a Cedrick Hawkins five-yard touchdown run.
In the second quarter, things turned to defense with Bradford punting to start things off, but the Tornadoes found a way to start locking things down and got Cocoa to commit several penalties that forced the Tigers to punt for the first time with 10:28 left before halftime.
The punt being returned to midfield gave the Tornadoes their best field position of the night. Cocoa was looking to make things an issue again as Bradford started to go backward with false starts, but the Tigers were hit with a facemask penalty on a Bradford third-down play after pulling Shanks by the facemask setting up a manageable third and eight for the Tornadoes.
On that third-down play would the Tornadoes get the ball out to Chason Clark, who had just been awarded the FloridaHSFootball.com/scoutSMART Florida Player of the Week for the Regional Finals which got the ball down to the Cocoa 16 after 31 yards, but it would be all for not after that.
On first and third down plays for the Tornadoes, high snaps went over Shanks’s head backing the Tornadoes up to the Coca 32 yards line with 5:30 left before halftime. With being out of field goal range, the most promising drive of the first half for the Tornadoes ended with an incomplete pass by Shanks forcing a turnover on downs for Bradford.
Now with the ball back, Cocoa was looking to add to its already 14-point lead when Boda found Hawkins out in the flat for 40 yards to the Bradford 28, looking as if the game would become out of hand. With multiple penalties coming in for Cocoa, the Tigers found themselves quickly facing third-and-25 at the 43 with the pass falling incomplete and forcing the Tigers to punt for the second time.
Bradford would get the ball inside their own five after the punt but could not do anything with it and Cocoa would kneel down to end the half up 14-0.
BRADFORD LIGHTS THINGS UP IN THE SECOND HALF
The Tornadoes who were down 14 the previous week to Baker County, we’re looking for magic once again coming out of the half with the kickoff coming to them to start things off.
And that magic showed up again for the second week in a row when Jametrius Pringle took back the kickoff for a touchdown, this time for 95 yards to cut Cocoa’s lead to seven with just 21 seconds coming off the clock.
From there it became clear that Cocoa’s plan to potentially put Bradford out of the game got flipped upside down the Tornadoes were going to come
The upside-down flip would start with a Torin Brazell sack on Boda on second and 11 with the Tornadoes locking things down forcing a punt with just 8:30 to go in the third quarter when Brazell got his hands up and Trente Jenkins getting the recovery, pitching it back off to Brazell taking it back for 48-yards to tie the game up at 14-14 with 8:13 left.
With Cocoa having the ball back, the Tigers were looking to get back ahead of things but the Tornadoes’ Gavin Cook had other plans when Cook got in the way of a Boda pass on third down to force a rare three-and-out on the Tigers.
If that was enough damage by Cook on the pass breakup, Cook helped things out when McKenzie found Cook downfield on the ensuing drive for a 24-yard gain to the Cocoa 44.
However, that gain by Cook would be short-lived as the Tigers put the Tornadoes in a punting situation with 3:29 left and it would not take long for Boda to find Boggs once again this time from 78 yards out to put the Tigers up 21-14 with 1:23 left in the third quarter.
From there, Bradford was looking for the answer to make sure the Tigers wouldn’t let things get out of reach for them and sure enough, that is what they did on the following possession when McKenzie came to lead the series down the field that was aided by a pass interference call on the Tigers as McKenzie scored from two yards out with 7:45 left to go in the game.
The momentum would be short-lived as Boda would gash the Tornadoes’ defense with a huge 48-yard pass play to Boggs once again. However, instead of folding at that point, the Tornadoes stood tall forcing an Alex Ramirez 29-yard field goal that put the score 24-21 with 5:47 left to go.
With the ball in hand, the Tornadoes had every opportunity to potentially run the clock down on the Tigers and at least tie the game or get the go-ahead score.
That would be all for now when Willie Pollard who had some carries earlier in the night fumbled the ball with 5:25 after returning the kickoff to around midfield setting up the Tigers to score from two yards out on an Anthony Bridgewater carry to put Tigers up 31-21 with under two minutes left in the game.
And to truly seal the deal Jameer Smith picked off the Tornadoes with just over a minute to go ending any potential hopes of Bradford scoring quickly and having a chance for a comeback.
COACH’S WORD WITH COCOA HEAD COACH RYAN SCHNEIDER
The Tigers advance on to the Class 2S State Championship game next Friday night at Gene Cox Stadium in Tallahassee where they will take on Florida High (Tallahassee) (14-0) with a kickoff slated for 7:00 p.m. Eastern time.