When Nease travels to take on rival Ponte Vedra in the “shark tank” this Friday, it will be the type of game that so many players taking the field dreamt of growing up while they were tossing the ball around in their front yard.
From the atmosphere to the postseason spot up for grabs, this year’s football matchup between the Sharks and Panthers has it all.
And based off of recent years, that should be no surprise, as it seems like every time these two teams square off, it comes down to a one possession game with a big drive or late stop in the fourth quarter to secure a victory.
No matter how it gets sliced, this year’s contest pits strength versus strength in so many areas and matchups.
Ponte Vedra’s defense has been making waves this season and are coming off of their third shutout on the year, following a 35-0 route of Orange Park last week.
It is their combination of athleticism and discipline that makes them so unique and frustrating to go up against and they have playmakers at every level, from Robbie Grieco and Cortez Juarbe providing pressure along the defensive line to the Babin brothers of Maddux and Talan flying to the ball in the linebacking corps and Joe Mahoney and Zac Martus roaming in the secondary.
However, the Panthers appear up to the test of solving the Sharks’ defense that looks nearly impenetrable at times, as they have found their own rhythm in recent weeks and the confidence of Bryce Frick continues to grow with each week since he took over as the team’s starting quarterback.
Frick is also surrounded by a bevy of playmakers, including a one-two threat in the backfield with Cam Smith and K.J. Perry, who has seen his role increase drastically the past couple of weeks.
These two backs along with a talented group of receivers, led by Maddox Spencer, who recently passed 1,000 yards receiving on the season present an interesting test for both sides.
One of the key matchups when the Panthers have the ball will be when two of the state’s best in Spencer and Mahoney get matched up with each other.
Mahoney has locked down elite receiving prospects on several occasions this year, but Spencer has a knack for finding the holes in a defense and is almost guaranteed to get his share of yards each contest.
A difference heading into this matchup compared to the last couple of years is the play of the Sharks’ offense, which has taken the next step forward this year and has been a high-flying unit, scoring more than 30 points in their past six games during their seven-game winning streak.
And the points have come in a variety of ways, which makes defending them even more complicated.
There have been games where the Sharks have won by pounding the ball with Brian Case, who is averaging just shy of 100 yards per game, but the biggest change this season has been the passing game and the play of senior quarterback Ben Burk.
Burk has thrown for 1,336 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, many of those coming on deep shots down the field, as the Sharks like to take advantage of speedy receivers Cole Madson, Ryan Smith and Griffin Owen.
The development of Burk has allowed the entire offense to shine, and it is not just his throwing, but also Burk’s ability to scan the field and find the open man, which has led to the involvement of so many receiving threats, including a career year for junior tight end Landon Okla, who leads the team with five touchdown catches.
However, the Panthers can counter with an excellent defense of their own and one that has seen vast and continued development from one season ago.
Creating turnovers is the name of the game for the Panthers, whose ball-hawking style could prove the difference against the Sharks.
As is the case in so many contests, the team that wins the turnover battle usually has the best shot of winning the game.
The Panthers had a bye prior to the rivalry meeting, which could not have come at a better time because the Panthers have been dealing with several injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Turnovers are a realistic possibility on any drive with Careal Carter and Cade Papineau lurking in the secondary and Jacob Curry flying around popping pads left and right.