Ever since the Jacksonville Jaguars were awarded a National Football League franchise in 1995, this beachside community is touched every fall with football fever. Iconic quarterback Tim Tebow helped stoke the flames for the game while starring for the Nease High School Panthers, the Florida Gators and the Denver Broncos. Area kids all wanted to “be like Tim,” and their parents wished for that as well.
Today, the area football community has grown to include two high school programs, two middle school programs and two youth programs. A significant number of alumni from each these programs have gone on to play division IA college football and some – like Tebow – have even made it to the pros. Lucas Crowley at North Carolina, Max Chapman at Northwestern, Dylan Bates at Tennessee, Trey Smith (son of former Jaguar Jimmy Smith) at Louisville, Andrew Boselli (son of former Jaguar Tony Boselli) at FSU, Cole Mazza and Matt Wawrzyniak at Stetson, Jessie Burkett at Stanford, Johnny Wolford, Frank Souza, Hunter and Riley Haynes at Wake Forest are just a few of the youth program alumni to play at the next level.
High School Football
It’s taken a few years, but 2016 could finally be the season both Ponte Vedra high schools earn post-season prominence. Ponte Vedra’s Sharks may be the class of district 5A and the same could be said of the Nease Panthers in district 6A. Here’s a preview of each team:
Ponte Vedra High School Sharks
Ponte Vedra head coach Matt Toblin took his team to a district title in 2015, but the Sharks never made it past Ribault in their first playoff game. With a slew of returning veterans, including the 2015 St. Johns County Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Nick Tronti, the coach is feeling good about the new season but tries, of course, not to be overly optimistic. Says Toblin guardedly: “I think we have a chance to be special this year.”
It is not surprising that Toblin’s entire offensive backfield and more than half his varsity squad are graduates of the Ponte Vedra youth football program. The potent Shark backfield is comprised of quarterback Tronti, senior running back Hal Swan, senior wide receivers Marshall Few and JD Piris and junior wide-out Jarett Stepp.
Anchoring the O-line are returning veterans C Taylor Montroy at 275 lbs, OL Zach Lowery at 305 lbs as well as senior OL Korey Johnson and junior TE Kit Connelly.
Nor is the Shark defense lacking a veteran presence. Senior free safety Andrew O’Dare may be the heart of the Sharks defense. In two prior seasons, O’Dare amassed 107 solo tackles. If that weren’t enough, the defensive backfield also boasts three-year starters in FS Noah Solaun and LB Cade Macri as well senior LB Jacob Reeves, junior LBs Gibson Pardue and Duncan Van Kouteren and the versatile defensive competitor, Trevor Rolison, who has shown he can play wherever needed. Senior DTs Alfred Koch and Carson Shoals provide size and depth on the D-line.
Chris Howard will handle kicking duties for the Sharks. Coach Toblin believes Howard – a star for the Sharks soccer team – may be the best high school field goal kicker in the nation.
After routing the Arlington Apaches 56-12 on Aug. 19, the Sharks now travel to Nease to defend the Battle of the Bridge Trophy against the Panthers in a non-district matchup on Aug. 26.
Ponte Vedra’s district 5A opponents for 2016 include Wolfson, Westside, Bishop Kenny and Terry Parker. In addition to the Panthers, their non-district opponents include Palatka, Oakleaf, Pedro Menendez, Bartram Trail and Creekside.
It’s difficult to argue with Coach Toblin’s cautious prediction. The Sharks could indeed be special in 2016.
Nease High School
Nease High School opens the 2016 season under third-year coach Tim Krause with an impressive array of returning offensive and defensive weapons. Last season, Krause coached his charges to a 7-4 record, including the 6A district title. The highlight of the season was a crucial win over perennial archrival St. Augustine. The Panthers also knocked off Pedro Menendez after the Falcons had upset the Sharks.
Before coming to Nease, Krause served for six seasons as the offensive coordinator at Bishop Kenny. Johnny Wolford, the former BK standout quarterback, currently under center at Wake Forest, set numerous records his senior year under Krause’s guidance. The Panther coach hopes to have more of the same positive results with his versatile senior quarterback, Leighton Alley.
Alley, at 6’ 5” and 230 pounds, directed the Panther offense for the past two seasons under Krause, accumulating some impressive statistics including 266 completions in 450 passing attempts good for 3,488 yards and 25 touchdowns.
As a junior, Alley also carried the ball 33 times for 147 yards and 4 TDs. When he drops back to throw this year, he will probably look for junior wide-out Ashton Wood, junior tight end Zach Sheffer or senior wide-out Jack Heinemann. As a sophomore, Wood racked up 63 catches for 812 yards and 7 touchdowns while Sheffer is being heavily recruited by a number of division I schools.
Junior Jareem Westcott replaces Kendric Harris, last season’s star running back, who was lost to graduation.
On the defensive side, Krause has two returning starters at defensive end in 230-pound Tyler Schaffer and 225-pound Adam Timmins, both seniors. Timmins led the Green and Gold defense with 67 solo tackles last year. NT Preston Jowers and DT John Bogle, both weighing in at 235 pounds, round out the D-line.
Sophomore linebacker Josiah Haygood, another alumni of the PV youth football program, could earn playing time with the Panther defense if needed, while still another PV youth program graduate, Michael Leisle, will handle the kicking duties for Nease. Leisle was a second team Division 6A punter as a junior in 2015.
The Panthers and the Ponte Vedra Sharks meet August 26 in a non-district game at Nease in what has become known as the Battle of the Bridge. Last year, the Panthers lost to the Sharks 17-3. This one promises to be a real barn-burner featuring two of the best quarterbacks in Florida high school football today.
Nease’s district 6A opponents include Ed White, Middleburg, St. Augustine and Englewood. In addition to the Sharks, the Panthers’ non-district foes are Creekside, Menendez, Matanzas, West Nassau and Bartram Trail.
With a tested veteran defense, a very talented quarterback and a proven offensive mind in head coach Krause, look for the Panthers to go far in the district 6A playoffs in 2016.