WINTER GARDEN — Five minutes remained in the first half last Friday, and West Orange High School’s varsity football team had yet to reach the scoreboard.
Normally, that would not bode well against a score-all-the-time team such as Apopka High, but the Warriors have developed a resiliency and a swagger this season that tends to work well in the face of adversity.
So, when West Orange found itself trailing 10-0 late in the second quarter to the visiting Blue Darters — a program that appeared in each of the last two Class 8A state championship games and fielded more than two-dozen seniors on its 2014 roster — there was no panic.
Instead, West Orange outscored the Blue Darters 42-13 during a pivotal (albeit rainy) 18-minute stretch. The Warriors subsequently counted down the final seconds of a 45-31 victory that touched off a long-awaited celebration at Raymond Screws Field for several reasons:
• West Orange improved to 6-0 for the first time since 1996. The Warriors also took a significant step toward a coveted district championship and a first-round home playoff game.
• The Warriors, who, during the week entered the Associated Press Class 8A state poll at No. 10, snapped a 15-game losing streak against Apopka. The Blue Darters (4-2) were the state’s No. 4 team despite a Week 1 setback to Oak Ridge.
• The matchup held key implications in Class 8A District 4 standings. The Warriors conclude district play against Backyard Bowl rival Olympia (away Oct. 17) and Evans (home Oct. 31), as they look to clinch an FHSAA playoff berth for the second year in a row.
“We really lived up to what we’re supposed to be,” said Eddie McDoom, whose 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown sparked a second-half comeback. “Everybody was so worried about how we were going to turn out in this game, but everybody stayed humble and they stayed loose and they kept fighting. We just really fought tonight.”
West Orange second-year coach Bob Head is in select company when it comes to recent success against the Blue Darters. He’s been on the winning side of four of his last six head-to-head meetings with Apopka, which includes victories in 2009, 2011 and 2012, while at the helm of Olympia High’s varsity program.
“Our team just has a never-say-die attitude,” Head said. “We never put our head down, even when things were tough and things were going bad. We got down 10-0 right away, and we could have easily folded the tent and been done, but the kids fought hard, and we just kept working.”
West Orange returns to action Friday, Oct. 10, against winless Cypress Creek on Homecoming. The Warriors also will be looking to carry a 9-0 record into their annual Battle for the Shield game with Ocoee Nov. 7.
“There’s a lot of work left,” Head said. “You know we have Cypress Creek, who is having a bad year. So, it’s going to be a rough week getting them motivated, with all the distractions of Homecoming around here. It’s a huge event, but we’re just going to work.”
West Orange started gaining momentum late in the first half against Apopka.
Junior quarterback Woody Barrett caught an Apopka defensive back taking a step toward McDoom, thinking there might be a wide-receiver screen. Barrett quickly spotted Rontavious Williams running free down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown with 1:50 left in the second quarter.
The capacity crowd got into the game even more, when Jalen Julius returned a punt 77 yards for an apparent touchdown moments later. The score was negated by an illegal block in the back behind the play, but the Warriors still went to the intermission down only 16-14.
The momentum shift continued innocently enough, when a rainstorm swept through Raymond Screws Field at halftime. The second half began with a minimal delay — although steady rain continued to fall — but West Orange appeared to have a physical and emotional edge when play resumed.
The Warriors made several big plays — none larger than McDoom’s kickoff return to open the third quarter. The junior wide receiver made a nice cutback along the sideline near midfield before being escorted into the end zone by blockers Gerald Taylor and Julius.
Paul Mansingh’s extra point gave West Orange a 21-16 lead.
“At halftime, nobody was really worried about the rain, because we’ve played through rain all season,” McDoom said. “When we went to the kickoff return, I just took the ball and in my mind I said, ‘Make a play.’ I did that, and I was pretty excited.”
Head said: “It was huge for us. We knew (the Blue Darters) were going to sky kick it, and we moved Eddie down. Once I saw that he got the block on the edge, I knew there was no way they were going to catch him. I was shocked, and I was sprinting down the sideline faster than anybody.”
A miscommunication on the ensuing kickoff left Apopka with possession at its 8-yard line. Jeremy Samuels later tackled Blue Darters quarterback Demetri Burch for a 5-yard loss, and Nikk Howard nearly trapped J.J. Simmons for a safety on third down.
The Blue Darters managed only a 24-yard punt, and West Orange capitalized on a short field, with running back Dexter Williams going off the right side for a 2-yard touchdown.
McDoom’s 63-yard touchdown reception came with 11:17 to go and upped West Orange’s advantage to 34-23. McDoom lined up in the slot and ran a seam route as the Warriors converted a third-and-17 play.
“He’s a resilient worker, and nothing fazes him on game day,” Head said of McDoom. “No stage is too big for him and, for a junior, he’s unbelievable.”
Apopka amassed 646 total yards in last season’s 52-35 win over West Orange, but this time, the Warriors’ defense was more disciplined in its assignments and made more tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. The Blue Darters’ touchdowns came on runs of 30, 18 and 12 yards, as well as Simmons’ 72-yard catch-and-run on a slip screen.
West Orange senior safety Ramon Lyons made a highlight play midway through the third quarter, cutting down lead blocker Chandler Cox and the ball carrier (Simmons) for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1.
Decary Croaker’s hard hit helped jar the ball loose from Cox early in the fourth quarter. The Warriors recovered the fumble and, two plays later, Barrett ran 34 yards for a touchdown making the score 41-23 with 8:44 left.
Dajour Nesbeth also intercepted Burch on Apopka’s final possession.
“It took us a couple series to really simulate that speed (of Apopka’s offense) and get accustomed to it, but our kids fought,” Head said. “At halftime, they said we’re not giving up any more scores. So, they had that look in their eye, and I was like, ‘Wow, I think that we’re ready to go.”
Barrett finished 12-of-22 for 238 yards, and McDoom totaled six receptions for 138 yards as West Orange exploited Apopka’s pass defense, which featured the Auburn-bound Cox at safety. Barrett’s running ability was also on display (104 yards), while Mansingh contributed six extra points and a 37-yard field goal. Barrett got West Orange on the scoreboard when he scrambled out of the pocket and scored on an 18-yard run with 4:31 remaining in the second quarter.