Until halfway through the third quarter in its state semifinal bout against Columbus (Miami) Friday, Dec. 2, Ocoee was clinging to a 30-28 lead.
In the first half, the Knights had led by as much as 10 points, stunning an Explorers team (11-1) that had pummeled virtually every opponent it faced this year.
And even after Columbus was able to claw to a 35-30 lead, the Knights shot back, scoring six on a touchdown reception late in the fourth to reclaim the lead 36-35.
However, in the waning minutes of the game, the Explorers found a way to the end zone en route to a 41-36 win.
Even though Ocoee’s season ended one game short, the Knights — led by seniors running back Keyondray Jones (1,491 rushing yards), quarterback Darien Wharton (1,980 passing yards), receiver Assad Waseem (1,353 receiving yards) and defensive end Calvin Smith (19.5 sacks) — gave the entire West Orange community a season to remember.
According to Ocoee High School Athletic Director Bill Alderman, part of the success the Knights had this season came from the culture and the changes in the program that head football coach Aaron Sheppard implemented this year and all the adjustments that were made to have a more competitive football team.
“We reiterated to them just how (well) they responded to every challenge they had (this season),” he said.
The Knights ended the season at 9-5 — a record that, on paper, skews Ocoee’s gridiron might. After losing the Battle of the Shield to West Orange High School Nov. 1 41-17, the Knights rebounded and played their best ball in the playoffs.
In Ocoee’s historic postseason run, the Knights dispatched a stout Durant (Plant City) team Nov. 12 42-27, got revenge on the Warriors Nov. 18 in a 29-28 overtime thriller, and dismantled an East Lake (Tarpon Springs) team 34-19 just one week later.
Before their trip to Miami to face Columbus, the entire Ocoee community rallied around the Knights for a proper sendoff Friday, Dec. 2.
Everything started with breakfast biscuits donated to the team by the local Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s. Following the meal, the Knights lined up and prepared to walk through the school’s courtyard, where students, as well as Ocoee High School band and cheer squad, were waiting. Fans held personalized banners while students cheered.
Once the players reached the bus loop, students began to chant “Ocoee, Ocoee!” After a few seconds, hundreds joined, the words echoing through the walls of the school as the last players entered the buses.
Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson and Commissioner George Oliver were present at the event to show their support.
Lisa Morris Jacobs, an Ocoee Marching Knight mother, said the team created a wonderful atmosphere for Friday Night Lights.
“This year was some of the most well played, exciting football of the four (or three thanks to COVID-19) years we’ve been blessed to be Ocoee Knights,” she said.
“This team was always the underdog. They were usually counted out before a game even started. The perseverance and determination they showed each and every game was amazing to watch. These guys worked hard and deserved to go all the way! I am so glad that we made the trips to watch them do what they do and prove so many wrong time and again. The support that was in our stands at every game was also incredible! I am proud that my daughter is a Marching Knight, and I am proud to be a Knight parent!”
No doubt, the 2022 success made new Knight fans, but the run also had an impact in those who had been following the team for years.
“I can remember when I hoped they would just score against Apopka,” Ocoee resident Heather Peery said. “They always played with heart, but something changed! More reason to show up for a game besides an awesome band!”
Former alumni Josh Randall saw this season as a shift where the boys demonstrated what true Knights can do.
“As an alumni, it means a lot (that the team got that far),” he said. “We aren’t like these other schools with magnet programs that allow us to recruit good players to our school from other school zones. This was a product of great coaching and great play from true Ocoee kids.”
With the season now over and a long off-season ahead, the boys will regroup, work on their conditioning and reassess their strengths and weaknesses, so they can come back stronger next season.
Who knows? State champion Ocoee Knights does have a nice ring to it.