For the first time since 2015, the Columbia Tigers are back in the state semifinals. The Tigers (9-3, 3-0 3S-District 3) are on the road to take on undefeated Lake Wales (13-0, 5-0 3S-District 8) on Friday night with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
In head coach Demetric Jackson’s second season, and loaded with NCAA Division 1 talent, the Tigers will look to advance to their first state championship appearance since 1997. Their lone state title came in 1967. Jackson spoke with WRUF’s Steve Russell on Sportscene to preview his team’s matchup against Lake Wales.
D1 talent leads Columbia to strong finish
After starting the season 0-2 with losses to fellow state semifinalists Buchholz and Union County, the Tigers have rallied to win nine of their last 10 games, including a 20-14 win over Choctawhatchee in overtime last week, giving them the 3S-Region 1 championship.
Jackson said his Columbia showed tremendous poise down the stretch, even when things didn’t go the way they wanted.
Throughout the postseason, Jackson said the team has played well on all three phases of the game, but at different times. He attributes a strong offensive attack to their win over Lincoln (Tallahassee) to start the playoffs, big plays on special teams against Escambia the following week and, finally, clutch defensive plays in the win over Choctawhatchee.
Quarterback Tyler Jefferson, a 3-star Central Michigan commit and former Hawthorne starting quarterback, has shined with his new school. The senior has thrown for 1,209 yards and 10 touchdowns while splitting time with junior Evan Umstead. Jefferson added 511 yards and five touchdowns on the ground to this point in the season.
In the win over Choctawhatchee, Jefferson threw for 118 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass to Tray Tolliver in overtime.
— Coach Ryan Bell (@CoachRyanBell) November 27, 2022
Junior receiver Camden Frier, a 4-star Florida State commit, leads Columbia with 24 receptions for 521 yards and five touchdowns. Additionally, running back Tony Fulton leads the team with 665 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Defensively, the Division 1 talent extends even farther. The Tigers are led by 4-star linebacker Jaden Robinson, who is committed to Florida, and 3-star safety Amare Ferrell, who is committed to Indiana. Robinson returned a fumble 41-yards for a touchdown against Choctawhatchee, leading to the Columbia win.
Purple Haze‼️ pic.twitter.com/PuakRP9P47
— Columbia high school football (Fl) (@CHSTIGERS_FB) November 4, 2022
A look at Lake Wales
The Highlanders of Lake Wales have rolled over opponent after opponent on their way to a perfect 13-0 record in 2022. On the season, the Highlanders defeated Zephyrhills 26-9 to claim the 3S-Region 2 title.
Your Highlanders are headed to the FHSAA Class 3S State Final Four!!!!!!!
Zephyrhills 9 pic.twitter.com/aB4KhsoLyf
— Lake Wales Football (@lwhs_f) November 26, 2022
Overall, Jackson described Lake Wales as “opportunistic” and said that their clear strength is their defense.
Defensively, the Highlanders have yet to allow more than 14 points in a single game and have shut-out six opponents. In three playoff games, the defense has allowed a total of 19 points, which includes the 0 points allowed against Vanguard (Ocala) two weeks ago.
Additionally, Lake Wales boasts their own Division 1 talent in senior safety Jaremiah Anglin Jr. The 4-star Kentucky commit has 46 total tackles (34 solo) to go with seven interceptions, which tied for most on the team.
Lake Wales also boasts two players with more than 100 total tackles. Junior Johnquae Richardson adds 151 total stops with a team-high 126 solo tackles. He also has 10 sacks on the season and 44 tackles for loss. Right above Richardson is senior linebacker Sean Major, who made 154 total tackles, 53 of which were for loss. Both stats lead the team, but Major trails Richardson with 124 solo tackles.
The offense has accounted for over 2,000 passing and rushing each. Senior quarterback Trent Grotjan has thrown for a career-high 1,809 yards and 24 touchdowns while adding 272 yards and three scores on the ground.
Leading the rushing attack is senior Corey Harris Jr., who has rushed for 809 yards and nine touchdowns this season. In the team’s three postseason games, Harris Jr. has played his best, accounting for 431 yards and three scores, including 210 yards against Vanguard and 152 yards against Zephyrhills.
A win would give Lake Wales their third state title appearance in school history, where they finished as runner-ups in 1993 and 1994.
Local teams in state semifinals
Five Gainesville-area teams will be playing for state title appearances on Friday night. Hawthorne, the No. 1 seed in Class 1R, hosts Blountstown at 7:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Buchholz, who upset Bartram Trail last week, is back on the road to face Venice at 7:30 p.m. in the Class 4S semifinal.
Outside of Alachua County, Bradford plays host to Cocoa of Brevard County at 7:30 p.m. in the Class 2S semifinal. Finally, Union County travels to undefeated Northview (Bratt, Florida) in the second Class 1R semifinal at 7:30 p.m.