With the loss of a number of graduated stars and a daunting 2017 schedule, it may be too much to expect this year’s Ponte Vedra football team to repeat its historic run of last year, but head coach Matt Toblin and his current Shark squad are up for the task.
However, judging from Friday night’s 24-13 opening victory over arch-rival Nease, the Sharks look to reload, as opposed to rebuild, despite losing a host of regulars from 2016.
Entering their fourth season under Toblin’s leadership, the Sharks have made astounding improvements, from a lowly 3-7 in 2014 to 13-1 and a berth in the state finals in 2016.
The offense and defense each return but three starters from the team’s historic campaign of a year ago; however, the cupboard is not bare, nor is the outlook at all gloomy for PVHS team No. 10 in the young school’s history.
Linemen Rob Wortelboer and Gunnar Goetz and tight end Kit Connelly are the returning starters from last year’s explosive offense, while Peter Merlini, Daniel Lichlyter and West Point-bound linebacker Duncan Van Kouteren return on defense.
Thankfully for Shark fans, a number of last season’s returnees, although not listed as starters, saw significant playing time, accumulating valuable experience during last year’s incomparable run.
Headlining this group would be two-way standout Jarrett Stepp. The 6-foot-3 senior standout had a monster game in the Sharks’ victory over Nease—on both sides of the ball. Although Jarrett’s five receptions, good for 154 yards and two touchdowns, were impressive, that only begins to tell the tale of Stepp’s contributions to PV’s victory.
Stepp also returned kickoffs and punts that set up great field position for the offense. On defense, he had six unassisted tackles and an eye-popping four pass breakups from his defensive backfield position. Toss in a blocked extra point, and one could easily see why coach Toblin in his post-game interview stated that, “Stepp put us on his back.”
Stepp caught 5 of the 8 passes thrown by junior quarterback Jack Murrah, but coach Toblin is well aware that other receivers must step up as Stepp will surely be a marked man by future Shark opponents. Toblin is hopeful that Kyle Barker, currently nursing an ankle injury, will provide Murrah with that needed extra target.
“Right now, our offense is banged up a little bit,” said Toblin. “We lost Rafe Stenwall (broken collarbone) very early in our preseason game with Fletcher, and Barker is still saddled with an ankle sprain. We’re hopeful of getting Barker back shortly, but we want to be sure he is completely healthy before putting him on the field.”
Murrah, faced with the unenviable task of replacing Mr. Florida at the all-important quarterback slot, had a positive debut in the season opener. Although not possessing the speed of foot of his legendary predecessor Nick Tronti, the junior signal caller possesses a very strong and accurate arm. If given protection from his forward wall, Murrah can be a lethal weapon this year.
In addition to missing two of his regular receivers, returning lineman Rob Wortelboer has yet to make an appearance in 2017. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Wortelboer is battling a mysterious dehydration problem that has kept him sidelined up to this date. Goetz and Connelly will team up with Ben Gaskins, Brock Mayers, Mike Soncrant and Christian Ventouras to provide the necessary protection for Murrah and his trio of running backs: Zack King, Collin Magill and Mark Calvin.
It took King but one game to surpass his entire rushing yardage from the previous year with his 86 yards on 15 carries, including a game clinching 27-yard run on a crucial fourth down play midway through the final quarter.
When asked what pleased him most with the Sharks 8th straight triumph over Nease, Toblin said, “You can look at five or six plays that went our way. Whether it was Jack (Murrah), Jarrett (Stepp) Duncan (Van Kouteren) or Christian DeSanto recovering that onside kick, we had guys make plays when we needed them.”
Although the Sharks lost four of their starting defensive backs to graduation, Toblin is hopeful that there will be little drop-off with his fresh crop of 2017 secondary performers. The Shark secondary of Tommy Zitiello, Jake Lytle, Christian Herring, Chris James and Stepp limited the Nease passing attack to less than 100 yards. Junior Matthews Webster also stepped in and played well when Stepp needed a well-deserved breather.
Toblin does welcome back an experienced set of down defensive linemen and linebackers, spearheaded by Van Kouteren. The Army commit had 10 tackles against the Panthers and is part of a solid trio of backers that also include three-year regular Gibson Pardue and junior Cole McCormick.
Only junior tackle Emory Kingry is a newcomer to a solid defensive forward wall that returns Lichlyter, Zach Summers and Merlini.
Toblin was also pleased with the kicking and punting of Riley Robbins, a transfer from nearby Lake City.
The Sharks hit the road Friday night (Sept. 1) as they travel to Palatka where they face a speedy Panther team that breezed past Yulee 28-7. The two teams did not face one another last season as the game was cancelled due to impending weather concerns that actually failed to develop.
The Sharks obviously will not see the same kind of support at Palatka that packed Ponte Vedra’s Shark Stadium against Nease.
“That was an electric atmosphere on Friday night against Nease,” exclaimed Toblin. “It was just awesome to walk onto that field and experience that scenario.”
The Sharks can expect another packed house when they host St. Augustine on Sept. 8.